It was 1993. A friend was an ex-player and Exeter needed a sponsor. It was three years before professionalism, the game was struggling for money and Exeter were scratching around in the old fourth division, so my company, South West Telecoms, sponsored the shirts.
John Baxter, Rob’s dad, was chairman and later he asked me to get more involved in the management side of the club, so in 1998 we decided to turn it into a business and I formed a board of directors. You never imagine becoming so involved but I’d given-up powerboat racing about ten years before and needed something to get my teeth into.
How did you go about transforming Exeter Rugby, as it was back then?
Clubs are getting more switched on now but you need to involve the local business community; you need money and businesses like publicity and being around successful sports.
It was a challenge because the old County Ground was a hovel, but we did it up a bit, rebranded as Chiefs in 1999 and created the ‘Gold Club’ which is hugely successful. We got into the old first division and wanted to push on, but soon discovered we couldn’t build on the County Ground. We sold it for housing, worked with the council on finding new land and moved into Sandy Park in 2006. We’re lucky to have a ‘can do’ council, led by Karime Hassan, who work closely with us and our approach is ‘what can we put back into the city?’ It’s a good, strong relationship that’s served us both well.
What would you say are your ‘landmark’ moments to date?
Moving to Sandy Park and winning the LV=Cup last season, obviously, but you’d have to go a long way to beat the night in Bristol when we got promoted to the Premiership in 2010.
Then you look back at how everyone wrote us off in our first two seasons, but we stayed up and qualified for the Heineken Cup two years running, competing with the biggest names in Europe. We’ve had some pretty big landmarks, haven’t we?
What about getting guys into the England set-up?
Good point. Someone was saying we didn’t have a very good season last season because we finished eighth, but if in a few years you looked back at 2013-14 you’d see we had Jack Nowell and Tom Johnson playing in the same senior England side.
Before that we’d never had more than one player, and five of our guys were in the Saxons. Joel Conlon won the World Cup with England U20s, too, so if you take all that, along with winning the LV= Cup, you’d have to say it was another landmark year. People are disappointed we’re running in the second tier of Europe this season but that’ll give us time to regroup because our ambition is to stay in the top six of the Premiership.
Are Exeter becoming more attractive in the player market?
Success costs money and the more successful we’ve got, and the fact people know we’re here to stay, means we’re starting to attract better players. But we’re also improving our own players so when contracts are up for renewal we have to pay more to hang on to them as well.
When you mention the young lads that came through the U20s and are now part of the full-time squad, we’ve had to pay them a lot of money. But we need to hang on to them. Rob Baxter and I have had long chats about it and there’s a lot of pleasure looking at our squad and seeing 40 per cent of them are West Country boys. We want to keep that going.
Have you been under pressure to hold on to the likes of Jack Nowell and Luke Cowan-Dickie?
Not necessarily, we’ve just had to pay them well. We haven’t lost anybody we didn’t want to, but the point I’m making is that you don’t necessarily get them cheaper because you developed them. But they know what we’re about as a club, know what’s expected of them and what they’ve got to produce on the field, so it’s easier working with those people.
You’ve so far resisted bringing in so-called ‘marquee’ signings. Why?
We’re not necessarily looking for marquee players. There are certain guys who are key to success but you can’t build a squad around one guy and we haven’t got to the stage yet of employing, say, a Nick Evans. But Rob and Ali Hepher are clever, they don’t just take anybody. They hunt the world, actually, and there’s not a player out there they don’t know about.
Does it sicken you to see Nemani Nadolo tearing it up for Crusaders in Super 15 when he hardly lifted a leg for you at Exeter?
He was a silly boy with us and was difficult to control. But how often do you see a club release a player who hasn’t done anything and he’ll suddenly start performing at another club? But we really struggled with his off-field issues.
You mentioned ‘regular top six’ – how much pressure is Rob Baxter under from the board to achieve that?
There’s no pressure from the board, we don’t work like that. Rob’s a professional, he’s got a job to do and has his own personal ambitions, along with his coaches.
As a club, collectively, we want to be a top six side year-in, year-out, but I don’t run a business where he has to sit in front of a board and answer to us. He knows what he’s got to do and he gets on and does it. The Premiership’s a tough place to be but that’s what makes it so exciting.
Commercially, how big a challenge is it to push into that top echelon and compete?
We’ve got a good business model and even with all the expenses associated with redeveloping Sandy Park, we’ll turn a good trading profit for 2013-14 and are budgeting a profit this coming year, too.
We’ll spend to the salary cap and run it as a business, but some guys run clubs because it’s part of their overall business and a part that doesn’t need to make a profit. We try to manage our profit because the last thing I want to do is tell an AGM: “We made all this profit but finished eighth.” Running a professional sporting club as a business is difficult, though, because you try to plough back all the money you’re making, but sometimes can’t because of the salary cap.
Are all Premiership clubs adhering to the salary cap?
No. I don’t need to mention names but some clubs have found a way to manipulate things. I reckon there are at least three clubs who are running over the salary cap and they know who they are, while we’re bang up against the salary cap and could do with spending more – and we’ve got more to spend.
We have a Premiership Rugby salary cap manager but it’s a bit sad and I personally think that rather than suppress the game in England we should allow clubs a bit more movement. I think you should have a salary cap because if you don’t it’s not good for the game if you have a couple of totally dominant sides, but the salary cap of around £5.5m is too low at the moment and I’d like to see it set £1m or £2m higher. I’d also like to see a minimum salary cap imposed.
Why a minimum – what’s your rationale there?
The rationale is that you actually make people commit and spend money. You can almost get to a position where some clubs are thinking, ‘why should we spend any more when we can survive by spending X?’ I don’t think that’s good for the competition either.
Are you concerned about the inflationary French market?
I am because it’s no good going into the European Cup if you can’t think you’ve got a chance of beating the opposition. You’ve got to have some parity with the money and we’ve got to pull our fingers out really. The reality is that Premiership Rugby have got to get more money into the game so we can up the salary cap. Professional sport is all about money.
Are Premiership Rugby not coming up to scratch then?
No, I don’t think so. I’m driving my club hard to increase its commercial revenues and I think we should be driving the game harder in England to increase higher commercial revenues. We should be making sure our game is attractive enough to entice big-spending companies because they’re out there. You’ve only got to look at the millions being thrown at the Commonwealth Games.
When Exeter joined the Premiership in 2010 you railed against unequal funding distribution and described it as an ‘old boys club’. Still believe that?
It’s still true. I smile when I read articles about London Welsh and the challenge they face because the way Premiership Rugby is set up – perfectly legally, I should add – is that the longer you’re in the league the more shares you have in the business. Points make prizes and all that, but you haven’t got a Scoobie-do what you’re going to get until you get there and it’s a shock to discover what you’re not going to get.
So you sympathise with London Welsh then?
Not really. They should stop squawking and do what we’ve done. We were disappointed not to get the early funding but we’re all big, grown-up boys in professional sport so you just have to get on with it. We had to up our game commercially to afford to stay in there and London Welsh will have to do the same.
How are your extensive summer ground developments coming on?
A nightmare. We’re five weeks out from the start of the season and are having to ask our contractors to dig deep to deliver what they’ve promised because Sandy Park is a mess.
The new East Terrace is half built and will be done, the pitch is in, but the West Grandstand is a mess.
Most of the seats are in but the rest of the building – the hospitality areas, conference suites and bars – are some way off and we’re relying on the contractors not to let us down on what they’ve promised.
How much are you looking forward to hosting Rugby World Cup matches in 2015?
Commercially we won’t get rich on it but we’re working closely with the city of Exeter. We might be the smallest venue, we want people to say it was the best.
We’re quite fortunate that we’ve got a nice environment and we can put on a great spectacle. We’ve got a great city and we want to make sure the fanzone is good, too. We’re sharing ideas with Gloucester on that because apart from the national venues at the Millennium Stadium and Twickenham, we’re the only proper rugby places. We’re both passionate about our rugby and are looking forward to it.
Current building difficulties aside, when do you hope to press ahead with the next tranche of plans to redevelop Sandy Park?
With the World Cup next year we’ve got to catch our breath a little bit. At the moment we’re investing close to £10m and the next stage, which involves rebuilding the south end with an auditorium and additional seats is going to cost £20m, so we need to make sure our business model is working first.
A lot of money is going into Sandy Park to allow us to hold bigger events so we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got our market there and are achieving our goals. Then, two years down the road from now, we’ll make decision on whether we want to spend any more money. We’ll be up to 12,500 this season so it will be a commercial decision based on whether we believe we should move to 15,000.
You left the Championship in 2010 and keep a close eye on it – what do you think of that league four years on?
I’m disappointed that all the RFU has done is sat on it. Personally, I think Premiership Rugby and the Championship should be working closer together, with maybe the RFU no longer controlling the Championship.
When it was the old First Division Rugby and we ran ourselves, we were quite successful and were on the brink of being able to move the thing on commercially. But it hasn’t moved forward commercially under the RFU and I’d be despairing if I was still in there. Both Plymouth and the Cornish Pirates are struggling and a lot of those Championship clubs are on the edge.
It wouldn’t take much to topple a couple of them over and that would be very sad to see.
Might Premiership Rugby be stronger as a collective with the Championship clubs in tow?
I would have thought so. If you had a professional set-up of 24 clubs you could probably earn more TV and sponsorship revenue and promote the Championship far better – and we should be promoting it because a lot of our best young players are in there on dual-registrations.
The French have got a lock-up between the Top 14 and Pro D2 and whilst we might not be ready for the kind of revenue shares they achieve right now, there is no reason for us not to have a much closer relationship. Something needs to happen with the Championship because they’re a million miles behind and are being held back by the RFU.
Comments are closed on this article.