Premier 15s salary cap increase tipping women's rugby towards becoming fully professional
This week, the RFU agreed to double the amount that clubs can spend on players in the Premier 15s. Originally, the salary cap was £60,000 but it has been extended in principle to £120,000 following increasing pressure from clubs. Many clubs agreed that the £60,000 limit, which is due to come into place in the 2020-2021 season, was insufficient to encourage a talented and competitive league. It shows the growing investment in the women’s game, and hints at the slow movement towards a fully-professional league.
The investment means the Premier 15s has become a hub of talent for women’s rugby worldwide. Exeter Chiefs boast USA captain Jennine Duncan and her teammates Gabby Cantorna and Kate Zackary, Netherlands captain Linde Van Der Velden, Japan prop Sachiko Kato, and a number of Canadian players. While Exeter has many international stars, many Premier 15s clubs also pinch some of the best players from the other Home Nations. That’s because Ireland, Scotland and Wales don’t have leagues of the same standard as the Premier 15s. The English league is without a doubt the most competitive, so many players choose to play their club rugby in England.
I recently spoke to Wales Women skills coach Rachel Taylor, who said that the move by many of the Welsh squad to Premier 15s clubs had been a positive step for the Welsh women. “It gives the players a chance to train and play against international players week in week out,” the former Wales captain says. “It can only be a good thing for the girls, who then bring that experience back into Wales camp.”
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The diverse international talent in the Premier 15s means the rugby is better and makes the international game more interesting, at least between the Home Nations who now all benefit from the Premier 15s. The Exeter v Saracens thriller of a match a few weeks ago was watched by almost 125,000 viewers via social media, YouTube, or on the Premier 15s website.
The record-breaking viewing figures this season have led the RFU to ‘ramp up’ their efforts to secure a broadcaster for the Premier 15s, according to David Parsley at inews.
This is great news, because as David points out, it will be a cheap opportunity for the likes of BBC, ITV or Channel 4 to compete with Amazon Prime, Sky Sports, and BT Sports. The price of the women’s tournament will be significantly cheaper than any of the men’s leagues, yet it is becoming a popular and exciting tournament for all rugby fans.
As I keep saying, the Rugby World Cup this year will do wonders to the profile of women’s rugby. It is set to be the biggest women’s rugby tournament ever, and I’m certain that it will break even more viewership records. Put women’s rugby on the telly and people will watch, but right now feels like the best time to invest in the women’s game, as we look at the monumental year ahead. If a broadcaster strikes a deal now, they are incredibly likely to come good on that investment, in my opinion.
Maybe broadcasters are waiting to see the viewing figures for the Women’s Six Nations before deciding to invest. I talk often of the ‘tipping point’ with women’s rugby, and what I mean is the uncalculatable moment that women’s rugby grows beyond scale, like women’s football saw after the 2015 FIFA World Cup. That tournament gained over 750 million TV viewers across the world, and since then, women’s football has grown exponentially.
While it will be on a smaller scale, 2021 is going to be the tipping point year for women’s rugby. The Women’s Six Nations will stand on its own for the first time ever, providing a spectacle for rugby fans, before the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand this Autumn. Now is the time for a broadcaster to realise the potential that women’s rugby has.
This weekend, not only did we see some sensational Six Nations rugby in the men’s game, we also saw some great Premier 15s clashes. Exeter continued their incredible season with a 17-10 win over Worcester Warriors, Saracens won 36-10 against Gloucester-Hartpury, Bristol Bears won 22-12 over Sale Sharks, and Loughborough Lightning won 20-17 against Harlequins.
Despite the women’s game being available to stream online, most rugby fans chose to watch the Six Nations, which is entirely understandable. You have to be a fairly dedicated Premier 15s fan to remember to log on to your laptop, find the live stream, check you have got Adobe Flash Player or whatever you need to watch videos online, and watch the game. You can’t just stumble over a live stream of a Premier 15s match, unless you already follow them on Twitter. But, if the games were on television, you might watch a game before the Six Nations kicked off, or just put it on to see what the craic is about. I’ve said it before, but we need to make watching women’s sports as easy as possible, without the need to go to additional lengths.
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I think of my nana, who is Manchester United’s number one fan. So much so, she follows Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney on Twitter but not me. The other day, she was watching women’s football, just because it was on telly and she wanted to watch football. It didn’t matter much to her that it was women playing, even though she’s not really that supportive of women playing any contact sports. Last week, she texted me to say how pleased she was that I don’t play rugby anymore. I haven’t the heart to tell her that I do. My nana is the classic football fan who will watch any game that’s on. There are many rugby fans exactly the same. God, I’ve driven for miles to the backend of nowhere in Wales to watch a game. It honestly doesn’t matter to me who is playing, if there’s rugby on then I’ll watch. If the Premier 15s is on telly there are so many rugby fans who will watch, because they appreciate good quality rugby regardless of who is playing.
As the RFU ramps up their search for a broadcaster, the Premier 15s proves that it is worthy of attention. If 125,000 people are keen enough about women’s rugby to watch a game online, then many more would watch on the television. For the sake of women’s rugby, and my phone’s data allowance, I hope that the RFU finds a broadcaster soon.