The chief executive of Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL) has outlined his strategy to revive professional rugby in England ahead of the 2024-25 season.
Simon Massie-Taylor has admitted the system has been “tested and broken” by the fate of Wasps and Worcester Warriors, and he believes there is “a momentum and a desire” to fix things. In the short to medium term, it will focus on four principles to achieve this:
Finalize the new competition structure while paying particular attention to the second level
Set up a financial oversight committee with an independent chairman
Introduce a sports commission for faster decisions with a salary cap formula
Work towards business growth with a greater sense of collaboration.
Massie-Taylor began his current role in January and will never forget his first year, which featured a trip to Parliament to deal with an awkward grilling from MPs over the events that led to the Wasps and Worcester’s demise.
Away from the wreckage, however, he intends to make “material progress”. Not least because the Professional Gaming Agreement (PGA) is up for renewal for 2024-25, now is the time to strike.
League structure and second tier
Although some of his predecessors seemed allergic to the second tier, Massie-Taylor spent his first summer on the job gathering opinions to develop an understanding of his importance to the sports ecosystem.
Over the next two months, PRL want to decide on the league structure for 2024-25, possibly with the top tier reduced to 10 teams, and “work backwards” to work out what next season should look like. Massie-Taylor believes the clubs are ‘pretty aligned’ and there are ‘not a lot of battles to fight’.
He says, however, that “the gap is too big” between the Championship and the Premiership and “the funding is not there” for the former. But strengthening the environment has become all the more important ‘given that we are likely to have two former Premiership sides in the Championship next season’. [Wasps and Worcester] and we want these clubs to come back”.
Relegation looks set to return, then, as there is a “strong will” to align the Premiership and the Championship. To borrow another successful strain from the French system, broadcasting negotiations could be key.
“When we talk with broadcasters about the next cycle, we’ll be very mindful of aligning the whole game,” Massie-Taylor continues. “Obviously there’s no narrative around the Championship. It’s been shown live several times, but no one is telling the full story. If you want a regional footprint in professional rugby, you don’t want to talk 10 or 12 teams but 20 or 24.
“The [timing of the] the broadcast agreement is in line with the league’s new 24-25 format. We were going to start these conversations soon. We have to see this as a revival, in general, of professional rugby in the 24-25 season. What exactly it looks like, how it’s marketed, and what the story is, that’s what we’re usually working on right now.
An overarching goal for Massie-Taylor is to “attract the next generation of people who invest in clubs” and to “generate investor confidence” in the Premiership. That said, he was encouraged by people who “came out of the woods” to take an interest in Wasps and Worcester.
Feedback from those parties, says Massie-Taylor, highlighted that “governance and financial control” across the competition were critical priorities. “If you can tick those boxes, then people will actually invest,” he says.
In response, the Premiership wants to set up a Financial Oversight Committee by this summer and is recruiting an independent chairman. This body will report to the PRL Board and be accountable to the Rugby Football Union (RFU). Its chairman will have a solid background in financial regulation but “will not copy and paste something that does not work”. Massie-Taylor wants them to “listen, understand and react to the situation we find ourselves in right now.”
Alongside transparency, proactivity and discipline will be important watchwords as the Premiership aims to emulate the French model, whereby clubs set budgets and provide guarantees ahead of a new season, to encourage sustainability.
Then again, Massie-Taylor is also aware that it will take time as “liquidity issues” are commonplace. “If we were to impose the French system on ourselves now, it would expose a lot of things,” he says. “It’s almost the first day of boot camp and we’re trying to get a group of soldiers in top shape.”
Further governance reforms will sit with the RFU, including a test of owners and directors. Massie-Taylor suggests this will need to be “continuous”, rather than an “instantaneous” assessment, with corporate structures also subject to scrutiny: “For example, we would need to be assured that the stadium cannot be hive to a standstill.” He would also like insolvency regulation to have “more bite”.
The Premiership’s cluttered and curious bureaucracy will be tackled, or eased, by a sporting commission for non-commercial decisions related to league scheduling or structure. An independent chairman will be appointed and the voices of recently retired players or ex-players will be included.
“You would avoid the natural conflict that currently exists in our system and avoid complicated voting structures where you need majorities or super majorities,” Massie-Taylor said.
At present, the salary cap is believed to be “quite arbitrary” and could instead be tied to a formula where clubs can only spend a certain percentage of their income. The sporting commission would be able to change aspects of this legislation, such as the existence of ‘exempt players’, commonly referred to as marquee players, to react to market forces.
Bearing in mind the number of players moving to France, Massie-Taylor concedes there is “a tension in the system” between the desire to “be competitive in Europe” and to spawn the “best league for come play” while being “reasonable” about short-term financial challenges under a reduced salary cap.
The cap is set to rise again in 2024-25, but Steve Borthwick, the Leicester Tigers head coach set to take over from Eddie Jones with England, seemed very deliberate last month when he indicated clubs should be better remunerated for developing internationals.
Growth through collaboration
Few would dispute Massie-Taylor’s claim that “the product is in good order” when it comes to the on-pitch entertainment served up by Premiership fixtures. Off-field cooperation can improve the infrastructure around this.
Massie-Taylor reveals he intends the next PGA to feature a joint marketing deal between PRL and the RFU. “It’s up to England, the clubs and the community game to tell the story together,” he says. “At the moment, it’s a very compartmentalized narrative.”
Harlequins are singled out as a club that are on pace when it comes to attracting impressive crowds, with Gloucester just behind. Massie-Taylor also heralds Premiership coverage on ITV, the same station that shows the Six Nations and the Rugby World Cup, as a “big step”.
On another level, PRL now shares an office in Victoria, London with Six Nations and United Rugby Championship staff. All of this gives the impression that, finally, the main stakeholders are starting to pull in the same direction.
“It’s not just because of the crisis we’ve been facing,” adds Massie-Taylor. “It’s all about the PGA being [up for renewal] now, business cycles being now but also the right people being in place.
“There is a general feeling of collaboration, both in the club environment with excellent general managers, with the relationship between the RFU, the PRL and the RPA [the Rugby Players’ Association] in a good place to shake things up. There’s a drive and a desire and what comes with it is the responsibility to get it right.