RFU Championship: The stakes have been raised

Written by Rugby Blindside

It’s now been a couple of weeks since the full fixture list for the 2021/22 RFU Championship season was announced. Although an improvement on last years half-cocked season, the league will still not resemble what it has done under ‘normal’ circumstances. The league will consist of 11 teams following Saracens promotion back up to the Premiership. Obviously with an uneven number of teams this leads to an unbalanced fixture list with teams at various points of the season experiencing bye weeks. Looking that the schedule this will mean a false start to the season for Bedford Blues and an early finish for Hartpury.

Championship Chairman Steve Lloyd commenting on the new season said: “We’re delighted to be announcing a full list of fixtures after an atypical season due to the pandemic. I know clubs are delighted that they will be able to welcome fans back at full capacity next season.”

Steve is correct, the previous season was not great for many Championship clubs who rely heavily on gate receipts and match day income. The hustle and bustle of busy touchlines, cheering fans and smells of beer and food during the forthcoming season will be very much welcomed by all clubs.

But for another reason, this upcoming season of the RFU Championship is special. The recently announced COVID recovery plan must be rattling around in the heads of club management and coaches at clubs in the Championship. This plan stated that in the 2022/23 season no side will be relegated from or promoted to the new 14-team Premiership. Even after the that season, a play-off in the 2023/24 season between the club finishing bottom of the Premiership and the winner of the Championship (subject to that club meeting the required minimum standards) will decide which club plays in the Premiership the following season.

This raises the stakes for the coming season of the RFU Championship as the winner will benefit from a minimum guaranteed two full seasons in the Premiership. This is a game changer for the club that secures this. So much so that it will potentially be an opportunity for a new club to assert itself as a top-flight club in English rugby for years to come.

To put this into perspective, London Scottish/Richmond Rugby are the only clubs competing in the 2021/22 RFU Championship season who have ever competed in the top flight in the professional era, and this was back in the 1998/99 season.

Not only will one of these club’s receive a slice of the £110m Premiership Rugby TV deal which runs until the end the of the 2022/23 season but they will also have the chance to compete on the European stage as well – which for some of these clubs could be a first too. This could bring a club that is used to mainly driving up and down the M1 to play its games a whole new host of opportunities and experiences.

A higher league status leads to increased revenues – TV, match-day and commercial. It leads to increased club exposure both domestically and internationally which will attract more fans, better players and enlarged sponsor deals. The knock-on effect for one of these clubs could be massive.

According to the RFU Championship Blueprint which was proposed by Cornish Pirates, Coventry Rugby, Ealing Trailfinders and London Scottish in February 2020 the typical costs of a full-time playing department in the Championship is £1.5m per season. This does not take into consideration any non-rugby staff, operations, conference and events, facilities management, etc. This provides an idea of what the level of finances are at this tier in comparison to the Premiership which has £5m salary cap for playing staff in the 2021/22 season.

In terms of revenue, the leap from the RFU Championship to the Premiership is huge. Bristol Bears are a fantastic example to use when looking at how promotion to the Premiership can boost a club’s finances. In 2018, the year they were promoted up to the Premiership, the club posted an annual turnover of around £5m. In 2019 after one season in the Premiership their annual turnover jumped to just over £9m. Even in 2020, when the pandemic was at its peak and clubs were facing a season with no match-day revenue the Bristol Bears still posted an annual turnover of around £11m. So, this shows that in the short-term promotion to the Premiership can potentially double, maybe even triple a club’s annual revenue, as Bristol Bears could potentially have been at the higher end of the scale of revenue generating clubs in the Championship.

Let’s take a more long-term look at the potential growth in revenue. Well-established clubs in the Premiership who have been in the league for years such as Bath, Northampton and Saracens (despite a brief spell in the Championship last year) are in the £16m-£21m annual turnover bracket. If one of these Championship clubs seized the opportunity, put together a squad that could compete consistently year after year and established themselves as Premiership club for a number of years to come then they could be looking at quadrupled annual revenues in the long-term.

Even if the winner of the upcoming Championship season is relegated after two seasons the positive impact that it will have on the club is certainly something that cannot be ignored too. Clubs like Newcastle Falcons and London Irish who have been up and down between the two divisions in recent years still achieve annual turnovers within the £8m-£11m mark which shows the lasting impact being in the Premiership can have despite not always competing in it.

All in all, the eleven Championship clubs find themselves in a unique situation for the upcoming season. Each club has their ticket for the raffle and the jackpot is revolutionary. As stated the potential revenue growth for one of these clubs is huge. But more importantly it will bring with it a whole host of new opportunities and experiences for one of these clubs fanbases. The dream of seeing your club compete domestically at the highest level for the first time and to go against clubs on the European stage will be something on forefront of fan’s minds when watching the 2021/22 season play out.

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