Rugby’s Growth Problems – And how to remedy it!

England's Ollie Chessum acknowledges the crowd in Rome, Italy

The recent announcement that both Doncaster and Ealing have had their applications to join the Premiership rejected was met by howls of anguish on Social Media.  It’s very rare to see agreement on Twitter on anything, let alone rugby, but this decision was one that united fans. The vast majority of responses to the news were one of disagreement and anger. However, the decision also laid bare rugby’s growth problems for all to see.

Rugby’s Growth Problems – And how to fix it!

Rugby is still in its infancy as a Professional Sport, having turned professional in 1995. As a result, it is still not as advanced as other professional sports, such as football. Therefore, it is a sport that makes mistakes in its decision-making. Whilst that is understandable, a lot of these errors are unforced ones and usually revolve around methods of trying to grow the game as the sport looks to become more advanced.  This is seen especially so in this country, but at a global level too.

Rugby’s growth problems mainly come from its motivation in trying to avoid being seen as a niche sport in this country and across the world, to become one that is much more popular and mainstream. As a result, rugby’s Governing Bodies are always trying to find and think of ways of growing the sport and increasing the interest and the fan-base. The issue with that is in doing so, the decisions and ideas that are created not only miss the mark but aggravate existing fans. Therefore, creating the worst of both worlds.

Domestic Issues

The decision to not promote Doncaster and Ealing showcased rugby’s growth problems mainly due to the reasons provided for making the decision, being ones that don’t make much sense. The main concerns for the decision lay around the grounds of the two clubs, with neither seen as meeting the “Minimum Standards Criteria” due to their grounds’ capacity not meeting the 10,001 figure needed. Whilst that sounds fine in theory, a greater look at the details and actual reality showcases that really the opposite is true.

When looking at the average attendance figures for the Premiership this season, what’s striking is that for six of the 13 clubs, their average figure is below the required 10,001 mark. To have 46% of the existing clubs’ attendances being below the required capacity, yet exclude ambitious clubs from the league for not having a big enough ground is not a decision that looks remotely sensible. Put simply, try explaining this logic to a non-rugby fan, and quite possibly you will be met with looks of bafflement. Hardly a good way of growing the game.

The next question revolves around this mysterious 10,001 figure. Where has it come from and why is that number? There does not seem much reasoning or science behind it. To make it even stranger, the minimum ground size criteria in football’s Premier League, a much more popular and commercially successful league, the number is 5000.

We’ll know rugby’s not twice as popular so why double the figure? The issue’s that this confusion, and seemingly a lack of common sense, leaves many people baffled. It also creates the impression that rugby, in this country especially, does not want to really grow the game when it seemingly cuts aspirational teams off at the knees like this.

Previous Bad Decisions

This decision follows in the footsteps of the Championship having its funding cut dramatically, a pretty much non-existent broadcast deal as well as reports that Premiership teams may be allowed to place “A-Teams” into the league. It all creates a feeling of neglect towards the league when the benefits of nurturing it are obvious.

We all know the Championship has been a great breeding ground for players that have gone on to play in the Premiership and then have International honours. Certainly at Leicester Tigers, their most recent player to play for England, Ollie Chessum (pictured above), found his way back to Tigers via a spell at Nottingham learning his craft and gaining experience. Making the league as good as it can be and constantly trying to improve it would create a greater talent pool of players in this country. Yet, decisions have been made to cut it off and weaken the league quality, not improve it.

Rugby’s Growth Problems Needs to Improve

In addition, it seems like there’s a lack of desire to really grow the game properly. Simple things like a TV deal that involves free-to-air coverage was non-existent until last month and there being no Official Fantasy Premiership game is really disappointing and seem easy wins for the game to grow and create wider interest. Unforced errors like tweets from the Official Premiership Rugby account taking a pop at football fans is needlessly provocative, and pure narrow-mindedness. Attracting fans of other sports, especially football, is crucial to widening the game’s popularity, yet rugby seems happy to not attract them.

It is not in this country that these errors are being made. Recently, reports circulated of plans for the Six Nations to change, with Italy to be booted out of the tournament to be replaced by World Champions South Africa. These were then denied shortly afterward, but the cynical-minded out there would suggest the idea will return or in another format. Again, it’s much harder to grow the game if you’re making competitions narrower rather than wider. Yes, Italy’s having a tough time in the Six Nations, but it is hard to see how they would improve if they are excluded to play lower-ranked teams.

How to Improve Things

So how to address rugby’s growing problems and help grow the sport, specifically in this country? Well, for starters, look at sports that have been successful and follow their blueprint. Rugby fans have a peculiar attitude towards football, and seemingly take a moral high ground towards the sport. This needs to stop. Whilst football has its issues, rugby does too. It does no one any good to look down on other sports, specifically the most popular sport in the country. Losing that insular mindset goes a long way to attracting new fans to the sport.

Where rugby can also look to football for guidance comes in the English Premier League. The growth of the competition and the sport in this country since its inception in 1992 has been astronomical, with it now being a billion-dollar industry with global appeal.

So how was this achieved? By keeping it very simple. Football realised that by promoting the teams, the star players and creating excitement out the skills on show, you could naturally create a buzz from what was already going on. If you tell enough people, enough times that you have the world’s greatest league and the world’s greatest players and keep trying to expand then eventually it will turn into somewhat of a reality.

What Rugby Can Do

Football kept it very simple and let the “product” do the work for them. Football realised it had a great league of great players, performing great pieces of skill, and ran with it. It created a buzz and hype as a result. Monday Night Football made the game appointment viewing, with pundits providing insightful analysis leaving viewers more informed after watching.

Rugby can do the same, just by doing the basics. The sport can expand itself naturally given the skill level of the players and teams are already top drawer. The hits are big, the handling is exciting with quality tries scored each week across the league. This country’s full of teams with great history and large fanbases, use that to tell the story and bring in new fans. Create a narrative regarding the great teams and players on show and promote that message and people will want to get involved.

In addition, make the game more accessible. The return to a highlights package on ITV is a great move, now the focus should be expanding that outwards. Like Match of the Day on a Saturday night, make it appointment viewing, with a regular spot and insightful punditry. Moving the program around or hosting it at an impractical time will defeat the object of having the game on terrestrial television.

The Championship

Reversing the decline in the Championship would be the next focus. Provide the league with a proper funding and broadcast deal, and revert to promotion and relegation, and you will create two leagues full of exciting games, attracting more fans and lifting the quality of the rugby on show. Make each game an event with something riding on it and people can buy into the drama and excitement of it all.

Rugby’s growth problems are understandable yet are fixable. However, recent decisions make growth harder to achieve. The game in this country could really become something special and much bigger than it is already. That’s by keeping it simple, doing the basics well, and cutting out narrow-minded decisions. Expansion should be the focus, not reduction.


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