Player transfer market – Could rugby learn from football?

We are currently in the middle of the summer football transfer window as fans sit excitedly and nervously by their phones waiting to see if their favourite players leave their club, or new talent arrives. The extraordinary fees paid by clubs in football is nowhere near comparable to the transfer landscape in rugby union in England, but why?

Transfer fees and players moving from club to club is a regular occurrence in rugby union but there isn’t the fan fair surrounding this side of the game like you see in football. To date, the largest transfer fee paid between English clubs is the £500,000 Leicester Tigers paid Bath Rugby for George Ford in 2017. The excitement surrounding transfers in football is mainly driven by the media and is exciting because of the time restrictions put on player movement. At the moment there are no time restrictions regarding when club’s can discuss potential transfers with players/clubs. A recent example, and also just mentioned, is George Ford announcing in November 2021 he will leave Leicester Tigers to join Sales Sharks for the 2022/23 season.

The short term nature of contracts in rugby, the norm being two/three years, leads to clubs waiting until a contract is dwindling to attempt to lure players away. The immediate demand, that you could also label as impatience in football, for going after players who are mid-contract just isn’t seen in rugby.

It’s not because superstars and game-changers in rugby don’t exist. There are noticeable differences between player ability across clubs in the Premiership. For instance, if any club in the Premiership were to offer Harlequins a transfer fee to prise Marcus Smith away from the club it would have an immediate positive impact on any club in the league because of his talent levels. The salary cap definitely impacts the movement of players throughout rugby. Although a club may be interested in signing a player mid-contract, there may not be space in a club’s salary cap to add players without releasing or selling on others. The salary cap therefore results in friction and hesitation in rugby’s transfer market.

There certainly are benefits to the transfer fee model. Taking football as the example again, it’s plain to see that it can generate a lot of revenue for clubs. An example is Brighton & Hove Albion, who in the past three transfer windows have sold four players; Ben White, Dan Burn, Yves Bissouma and Marc Cucurella for a combined total of £150m, £115m of which is profit. This profit eclipses the £93m Brighton & Hove Albion paid to build the Amex Stadium. No one can argue this isn’t excellent business and has helped stimulate growth at the football club.

There’s no reason, admittedly on a much smaller scale, rugby cannot replicate this model. It would do wonders not only for the larger clubs competing on the continent, but also for clubs lower down the rugby pyramid. Championship clubs could reap the rewards financially for developing their own talent and selling these players on with a transfer fee to a club in the Premiership. This would pump in much needed money into the rugby ‘eco-system’, not by outside sources directly, but by clubs already within the system and it would feed growth in the game in England.

How does this happen? Implementing a transfer window between the end of a season and the start of the next would help massively. If clubs know that there is only a single timeframe to do their player business it will increase urgency and action. Media input would also be essential in driving excitement and engagement from the rugby fanbase. They are, after all, the storytellers of rugby and a much needed vehicle to help grow interest in rugby. It’s also amazing what fan pressure can do to drive action from sports clubs, so buy-in from the rugby community is also an important contributing factor to make a success of developing rugby’s transfer landscape.

It is important to note that it would not benefit the game if, just like football, the transfer market was left to run itself like the wild west. Allowing clubs to run up massive debts in the dream of chasing silverware would be irresponsible and counter-productive. So to combat this, is the introduction of a transfer fee cap a possible idea? Independent financial regulation of clubs is already part of the game so adding an arm that keeps a close eye on club transfer spend in comparison to club turnover could be possible.

It’s interesting to think how the transfer landscape in rugby union might evolve and how it could potentially change the game. It could help grow the game and increase club’s turnover, but if rugby does move to a football-style transfer market cautious steps should be taken to ensure the stability of clubs.

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