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Will Wray buy broadcast rights?

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Will Nigel Wray buy the broadcast rights to the Championship?

Imagine spending a large proportion of your children’s inheritance on something as pointless as rugby? Now imagine that you had successfully created one of the greatest club teams in the history of that sport?

You would then imagine, if this was the case, there might be a large bronze statue of you outside Twickenham. Maybe even a hospitality suite. The absolute minimum you would expect is a car park!

However, Nigel Wray is about as likely to have the Twickenham car park named after him as Greta Thunberg. Instead, the ex-Saracens supremo is having to endure frosty atmospheres the young Swede could only dream.

Yet, while the rest of the rugby world pours scorn on Wray, one might imagine that the man himself might feel he has been a bit stitched up. Week after week new punishments are handed down, each seemingly less considered than the last.

One of the most remarkable things about this whole episode is the apparent lack of fight shown by Saracens, who truly believe they are being disproportionately punished for nothing more than great player welfare.

(Continue reading below…)

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So where is the reaction?

Men of Wray’s predilection don’t really do defeat. They certainly don’t do humiliation, so maybe, just maybe, while Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL) are busy metaphorically setting fire to an already dead Saracens corpse, they have taken their eye off the ball.

The twelve rival club owners are busy fighting a battle whereas Wray is off to win a war. Thankfully for him, being lucky is just as valuable as being talented. By all accounts he is both.

I joked on last week’s Eggchasers podcast that rather than Saracens worrying about the PRL ringfencing the Premiership, PRL should be worried about Saracens ringfencing the Championship.

Nigel Wray departure Championship

Nigel Wray

In an extraordinary turn of luck for Wray, the Championship’s broadcast and commercial rights happen to be up for tender. The traditionally unloved competition made out of pros, semi-pros and aspiring players trying to eke out a living from rugby will now be playing one of the greatest teams of all time.

Any commercial rights deal with the Championship will now include not just the likes of Steven Shingler at Ealing and Toby Flood at Newcastle, but also world rugby’s most marketable star Maro Itoje and the England captain himself Owen Farrell.

Wray knows exactly the value (sort of) of these players and might well look at the prospect of some organisation jumping on the Championship/Saracens bandwagon rather unfavourably. Might he decide to buy the rights himself?

It sounds mad on the face of it, but Saracens will be the focus of every game next year. Still a world-class outfit oozing talent, they will be in huge demand. Conversely, the club will just want to concentrate on rugby. If Wray buys the commercial rights, he can control the Saracens narrative. This might be worth it alone even if he needs to buy the rights to the other clubs in the process.

Once he has the rights to the Championship, then what? Sure, he gets to shield Saracens but we also have one of the brightest and most ambitious minds in all of rugby owning the Championship naming rights, IP, player and coaching appearances and critically, he could also decide who broadcasts the games.

When you have so much power in the Championship and your team is still the best in the country, operating outside of that pesky salary cap, you might be forgiven for thinking why bother going back to the Premiership at all?

In particular, the broadcasting rights are of interest because when you take a step back and include recent speculation about Saracens trying to fill up the fixture list against international opposition and Super Rugby teams, combining these rights with the Championship might become very valuable indeed.

Saracens already have a link with CNBC, so why not send your boys on tour to China, USA and South Africa to make some real money?

What of the other two big players in all this though: the RFU and PRL? The RFU are in a very awkward position as it not only has to act in the best interest of its membership but also needs to consider its relationship with PRL and the England team.

Wray knows this, so expect the first price to be paid is the scrapping of the exceptional circumstances rule applying to the Championship. Secondly, international player release has always been a point of tension between the RFU and PRL. This friction simply won’t exist in the Championship as the owner of the league is the RFU.

The RFU could have two-tier access to England internationals, with Saracens players enjoying far more time with the elite set-up then their Premiership counterparts.

Perversely it might become more beneficial for a player not to play in the Premiership to avoid injury and the general grind of the league, but also because the England management like players they can spend more time with. It’s starting to sounds almost like a central contract!

The more the RFU enjoy the cosy arrangements with Saracens, the more likely they will consider a breakaway league –  very Machiavellian I know.

Meanwhile, there might be some rather glum faces at PRL when the 2020/21 season starts. The land of milk and honey will be lacking at least eight England internationals that only months ago were starting in a World Cup final.

That’s a rather tough sell to any broadcaster when negotiating rights – particularly if there is no exceptional circumstances rule to protect the PRL from player drain and no prospect of one of the best teams on the planet returning. Add that to CVC’s 30 per cent slice of future revenues and it’s not looking too bright.

Who knows where this ends but it’s likely we have not seen the last of Mr Wray. Only very foolish people think we have.

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Will Nigel Wray buy the broadcast rights to the Championship?
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