The Rugby Football Union wants the Premier 15s to become the first fully professional women’s club league in the world within 10 years.
Announcing changes to the league from the 2023-24 season, the RFU said £222m would be invested over 10 years.
That would allow for a “phased increase in player salaries”, with revenues of £174m expected as the RFU and clubs pick up the shortfall.
There will be a new “remuneration cap”, which is yet to be decided.
The cap refers to remuneration – rather than salary – because it is not expected that all players will be able to draw a salary from the league immediately.
It is hoped the cap will help with imbalances in how clubs currently reward players, with penalties for clubs who break the cap to be decided by the board of a new company set up to run the league.
The 2021-22 Premier 15s cap was £120,000 for squads of around 40 players. Some sides offered a part-time salary, some match fees, others provided expenses – and a minority offered no payment at all.
England’s national women’s side has been professional since 2019, with Scotland and Wales beginning to follow suit earlier in 2022.
There is also an intention that the current RFU contracts for England internationals will end once the league is fully professional.
Sue Day, RFU chief operating officer and chief financial officer, said the intention was to create “the leading domestic league in the world”.
Saracens chief executive Lucy Wray, who was part of the working group on Premier 15s’ development, said: “This generation of players are all part of something very special, a massive turning point for the women’s game where people sit up and take notice.
“They are incredible role models for a future generation and they are paving the way for a seismic shift in the journey towards professionalism.”
Improved facilities and changed play-off format
Other changes announced by the RFU include an expanded end-of-season play-off format with six teams instead of four and the creation of a new company to run the league.
English rugby’s governing body says there will also be more coaching staff, “performance lifestyle support”, medical cover and improved facilities.
Currently, 10 clubs hold their league place for a three-year cycle with no promotion or relegation, but the number of sides could increase in the future.
Clubs can now express interest in becoming a Premier 15s team from the 2023-24 season and the RFU says “the aim is for there to be clubs geographically covering the whole of England”.
Premier 15s should not be ‘copy and paste’ of men’s league
The company that will run the league is expected to develop in the coming years. The process of identifying a chief executive is under way and the RFU hopes to find someone by the autumn.
Although Premiership Rugby Limited – which runs the men’s domestic league – has been involved in developing the new plan for Premier 15s, it does not appear that it wants to run the women’s league in the near future.
Eight of the current Premier 15s sides are fully aligned with a men’s Premiership club, with Northampton Saints in a partnership with Loughborough Lightning.
Premiership Rugby chief executive Simon Massie-Taylor said: “We believe the best solution for women’s rugby is a partnership between the participating clubs and the RFU.
“We currently have eight Premiership Rugby clubs playing in the Allianz Premier 15s and I would expect more to apply in the next phase given the high level of interest to invest in the future of the women’s game.”
Massie-Taylor said the Premier 15s should not be “a copy and paste of the Premiership” and that there could be “stifled growth” if the league continued to be run under the RFU banner or was adopted by Premiership Rugby directly.
Other nations’ leagues ‘not a concern’
The Scottish Rugby Union recently announced its intentions to expand women’s rugby in Scotland and hinted at a new league with “other unions”.
Day said the Premier 15s was a league for English clubs but they “remained open minded” about its growth with the home nations in the future.
She explained that the prospect of a new league for the other home nations was “absolutely not a concern”, adding: “We want to see all those leagues develop.
“It is really good for the game if all the home unions are developing women’s rugby so the Six Nations is more competitive.”