By Nick Cain,
Premiership owners are partial to borrowing from the professional football model when it suits their purposes. So, let’s introduce the ring-fencers among them to AFC Bournemouth, who were promoted to the Premier League four seasons ago.
When you look at the Bournemouth story you can only conclude that English football’s Premier League dwarfs the Premiership in terms of not just financial worth, but also in integrity. Through the opportunity afforded to clubs like Bournemouth it has managed to maintain a degree of probity and fairness in its competition structure which its unscrupulous Rugby Union equivalent is desperately trying to ditch.
Ten days ago Bournemouth beat Chelsea 4-0 in front of a capacity 11,329 crowd at their Dean Court ground. Yes, 11,329. That is fewer fans than Leicester, Bath, Harlequins, Gloucester, Wasps and Northampton would expect to attract to most Premiership games.
However, because the Premier League is not a promotion/relegation-averse cartel, unlike its Rugby Union equivalent, when Bournemouth won promotion in 2015 they were allowed to go up despite a home gate which was minnow-like compared to most of the other clubs in the top tier.
In the process they were also awarded an equal share league payment, as well as equal international TV rights, plus equal central commercial rights. This meant that along with the 19 other Premier League clubs their central funding in 2017-18 was just over £80m.
Although leading clubs such as ManchesterCity were paid another £70m in merit payments and facility fees, for a total payment of just under £150m, twelfth-placed Bournemouth did not do badly either, earning £30.5m for a total of just over £111m.
That balanced Premier League funding model has ensured that Bournemouth have not only survived in the top tier, but thrived.
Their atmospheric little ground has not been a handicap to them on the pitch because, while they do not get the same share as a Manchester City, or anywhere near the same gate money, they have sufficient income to invest shrewdly in players, coaches – and infrastructure.
After four years in the top league the Dorset club now have enough money to have plans on the drawing board for an expansion to a 30,000 capacity stadium.
In Rugby Union, by contrast, as well as introducing a funding structure where promoted clubs get half of the central funding that Premiership clubs enjoy, the cartel has introduced minimum standards of 10,000-capacity stadiums for any club wishing to be promoted. This stipulation is enforced despite some of the existing clubs in the league regularly attracting crowds of fewer than 7,000.
That edict is invoked to keep clubs with small grounds from gaining promotion. It murders the concept of a merit-based competition format, as well as the priceless drama and fan-appeal of a David versus Goliath tableau in which a club like Bournemouth not only earn their place in the league but also slay a giant like Chelsea.
Since the prospect of a fierce relegation battle began to take shape some Premiership clubs have worked themselves into a froth over promotion/ relegation, with some owners even muttering about a breakaway league if they do not get their own way.
Their latest ploy is to suggest a three-year moratorium, which is almost as convincing as wheeling a transparent Trojan horse up to the gates of the opposition fortress. The see-through exterior means that the cut-throats inside the horse are in plain view, so no Championship club in their right mind will fall for the attempted deception.
Nor do they show any signs of being duped by the PR spin which suggests it is only a matter of time before English rugby’s top club league is ring-fenced. They will treat it as the wishful thinking of a group of wealthy owners who wish to turn the league into a closed shop in order to protect their investments.
The reality is that the owners went in with their eyes open in a sport in which the league structure has been based on promotion/relegation since it started, and whose format and governance is the responsibility of the RFU.
However, their intention to move the goal-posts was made clear with a declaration that on April 9 they will be bringing plans for a ring-fence to a Premiership board meeting that will precede trying to get their proposal discussed at the next PGB meeting, also in April.
If the ring-fence plan won PGB approval it would then have to make a recommendation to the RFU management board, which could then refer it to the RFU’s governance committee, and then it would have to go to the RFU Council.
This is, quite rightly, an extensive examination process. However, there is a short cut. The RFU Council should make a pre-emptive strike, and do their job by telling the Premiership owners that they believe promotion/relegation is in the best interests of the English game as a whole – and that it is not up for negotiation.