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European League the clubs' solution?

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Will a European League ultimately be the cure to best finance clubs who are living hand to mouth?

With the Heineken Champions Cup centerstage for four of these five winter weekends heading into the Christmas period, fans are getting a run of eye-catching inter-league fixtures they are not normally used to seeing so close together. 

The European format in non-World Cup seasons has always been two rounds in October followed by two more in early December and another pair mid-January, weekends interrupted by the November Test series and a plethora of Gallagher Premiership, Top 14 and Guinness PRO14 fixtures.   

This winter, though, the Champions Cup is taking on a momentum of its own and it is having a positive upswing. Take Racing, the chic Parisians. 

Rather than just be embroiled in a domestic struggle near the bottom of their league that is really of interest to only rugby fans In France, they have just hosted and trounced European champions Saracens in front of a 20,275 attendance, a figure that dwarfed their league-best for this season of 12,566.

Next, they are set to play Munster at a bear-pit Thomond Park next Saturday in front of 26,000, a number that will eclipse the Irish province’s league-best of 14,436, before taking on Ospreys twice in early December. 

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That’s a cosmopolitan English, Ireland and Welsh dance card in contrast to a local schedule where they are next up against Bordeaux on November 30.

With Racing’s crowds massively increased in games against two of their three European opponents (regional rugby sadly simply doesn’t cut it with most Wales fans, no matter what way it is dressed up), it begs the question could a European League with more of a contrast in playing styles ultimately become the solution to best finance the club game on a weekly basis in the Six Nations territories?

EPCR authorities know damn well they are not getting sufficient bang for their buck at the moment, despite their promises when it replaced the old ERC organisation some years ago. 

Before an opening round weekend where Top 14 clipped the Premiership by four European wins to three in its seven cross-league Champions Cup/Challenge Cup fixtures, PRO14 beat the Premiership three wins to one and PRO14 topped the Top 14 two wins to one, chairman Simon Halliday admitted to RugbyPass: “Commercially, it has been a disappointment. 

“Lots of reasons for that. The rebranding takes time,” he said about an administration given birth in 2014 after England and French clubs broke away from the old ERC-run tournaments. 

“Secondly, a lot of sponsors have gone from being global into being pan-Europe, even local, so the way they allocate their money has changed, the way people look at traditional sponsorship has changed. Look what happened with Six Nations, for example.”

 

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That was quite a jolt for rugby administrators everywhere battling to balance the books. The tournament that casts itself as ‘Rugby’s Greatest Championship’ was left scratching around for a sponsor and eventually bedding in with HSBC for just a single year after it failed to achieve in the market what it felt it was worth. 

They eventually needed Guinness to cure that particular hangover. “The world of rugby is changing but that is not just us [Europe], it’s World Rugby, it’s Japan, it’s the financing of the game generally. It is something that is a real topic and we are just part of that discussion,” added Halliday, signing off.

In the current climate, too many clubs are existing hand to mouth and their bottom lines are stuck in the red. However, with private equity firm CVC set to buy into the Six Nations and PRO14 after already investing in the Premiership, rugby is certainly entering a fluid era commercially and it is interesting how one English club owner already believes a European League will ultimately be created to try and cure all financial ills.

Its mechanics, of course, would be up for debate. For instance, how can two salary-capped leagues go to work with one that isn’t, and what would become of all the existing broadcast and sponsorship deals? However, in terms of coming up with a workable format, if you excluded the PRO14’s two South African franchises and dropped two of the weakest French clubs, you would then only be amalgamating three leagues of 12 clubs each.

This total of 36 would be easy to divide back into three mixed league divisions of 12, offering each participant a home-and-away schedule of 22 matches before the playoffs. It’s certainly not a short-term runner but with professional club rugby continuing to struggle to financially wash its face, it’s an idea potentially ripe for long-term exploration.  

Here’s what Exeter’s Tony Rowe recently claimed in his Rugby Journal column. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a European Champions League,” he wrote. “The game will evolve to that because, interestingly, whereas we always get big numbers for the Premiership games, with the European Champions Cup, we have to work really hard to sell the tickets so a European Champions League might have more appeal to it.

“I just think the commercials around a European Champions League are far greater than a domestic league. The European Champions Cup hasn’t really grasped the commercial support from Europe and as the sport is growing, the French are trying to make inroads into more commercial aspects, as are we. I just think that will drive us to a game with more appeal to more supporters.”

That’s something to chew on ahead of the round two weekend where so many match-ups are must-see fixtures compared to your regular domestic league weekends. 

POTENTIAL EUROPEAN LEAGUE (based on last season’s finishing positions)

DIVISION ONE

Premiership – Exeter, Saracens, Gloucester, Northampton 

Top 14 – Toulouse, Lyon, Clermont, Racing

PRO14 – Glasgow, Munster, Leinster, Ulster

DIVISION TWO

Premiership – Harlequins, Bath, Sale, Wasps

Top 14 – La Rochelle, Montpellier, Castres, Stade

PRO14 – Connacht, Ospreys, Benetton, Cardiff

DIVISION THREE 

Premiership – Bristol, Worcester, Leicester, London Irish (replacing relegated Newcastle)

Top 14 – Toulon, Bordeaux, Pau, Agen

PRO14 – Scarlets, Edinburgh, Dragons, Zebre 

*excludes relegated French duo Grenoble and Perpignan, and African PRO14 clubs Cheetahs and Kings

WATCH: The Rugby Pod gives its reaction to Saracens not appealing their 35-point Premiership deduction for breaching the salary cap

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Will a European League ultimately be the cure to best finance clubs who are living hand to mouth?