In 2009, the RFU created the second tier of professional rugby in England, following the formation of the English Premiership in 1995. Since then, there have been 3 Championship clubs who have entered liquidation, and just this season, 3 out of the 12 clubs (London Welsh, Rotherham Titans & Jersey Reds) in the league have experienced financial scares - Welsh went out of business altogether.
Many believe that a lack of funding and poor crowd turnouts are at the root of the financial instability for the clubs in the division.
The RFU currently pay each Championship club £380,000 per annum, to cover professional aspects of the club such as players, staff, youth academy, community work and operating costs such as appliance bills and travel.
An average Championship squad's (of 40 players) annual wage bill is reported to be around £1,000,000, however some clubs have around 32 players, and try to get temporary players or dual-registrations to fill the gaps, in order to save money.
On top of that, costs for professional operations equate to around £2,000,000, and considering many of these clubs were community clubs just 10 years ago, this is a big financial ask.
This transitional phase within rugby union has seen clubs almost willingly become stationery, in a bid to prevent themselves from becoming 'the next Richmond or London Welsh.'
Many ‘traditional clubs’ want to follow the example of the Richmond's new, semi-professional model. As a young rugby player I’m a little sceptical about what the future holds for my sport. The ultimate goal is to become a professional rugby player, however with some clubs looking at reassessing their financial means, professional opportunities could half from 24 to 12 clubs. This also limits the opportunity to identify new talent, and the result could be many young stats being lost in the process.
The Championship offers the perfect platform for both aspiring and newly signed professionals, which in my opinion is one of the biggest pros of the league. Getting rid of the Championship may stifle player breakthroughs and development.
Bath Prop, Sam Nixon, who signed for the London Scottish Academy, via the Pro Lions Select platform, went on to play full time, following his studies at Millfield School, and represented Scottish’s Highlanders as well as the 1st XV in the RFU Championship.
Nixon currently plays with National 1 side, Plymouth Albion, and has recently been signed by Premiership side Bath, a remarkable achievement at just 20 years old.
Other examples include Courtney Lawes and Ali Oliver, who represented Bedford Blues Academy, in successful U19 squads that both won the National Colts Cup. Both went on to play for England and Scotland respectively.
If the Championship was to revert to a majority semi-professional format, the opportunity to develop talent outside of the 12 premiership clubs will be lost, and this could then have a knock on effect on the standard of the league and the national team.
Clubs are increasingly aware that with promotion, comes the expectation of more money, in order to retain their current players. It’s a necessary investment to ensure their squad isn’t immediately relegated.
Ealing and Doncaster rejecting promotion to the premiership is a prime example. Although I am personally a fan of their infrastructure development, I think this highlights the growing disparity between the Premiership and Championship, which won’t stop, unless the RFU intervene. It’s a shame clubs are turning down the coveted prize of Premiership status.
Poor fixture attendance is another factor for club’s experiencing financial instability; a prime example being London Irish, who only opened a quarter of their stadium during Championship fixtures. With an average crowd of 1,711 across the division, it’s not surprising clubs, such as Irish, don’t want to waste unnecessary costs on un-required seating. Also with such poor attendances, it’s no wonder clubs at this level are struggling to survive as a business.
The league’s future rests on a number of key factors, which could essentially make or break the English Championship:
1) The infrastructure of Championship clubs must increase, with an improvement in stadia, business models, academies and community work. The whole model must be more efficient and effective.
2) They must reach out to a broader fan base…there are 100 pro football clubs in the UK but only 24 pro rugby clubs. On top of that, rugby’s second tier attracts the same crowds as football’s fifth or sixth…
3) Funding must improve: In order to run a sustainable club with a strong coaching, playing, medical and administrative team, as well as quality facilities, a club needs adequate funding.
If these matters can be rectified, at least to some extent, the league will be in a much more healthy and fruitful position, and teams and players may once again aspire to play within it.