Rugby union’s Premiership is a “sleeping giant” in the sporting landscape, according to the league’s boss Simon Massie-Taylor.
Despite the repercussions of the Covid pandemic, Premiership Rugby aims to double its audience within six years.
The league will also look to raise the salary cap to a “sustainable” level and bring back promotion and relegation.
“The vision for us as a league is to be the beating heart of the English game,” said Massie-Taylor.
Speaking on a special Rugby Union Weekly podcast, the Premiership Rugby chief executive added: “We feel like we are a bit of a sleeping giant when it comes to sport, and that is certainly how the clubs feel but also the investors, CVC, who came on board recently.
“We know the market is there. There are 10 million rugby fans in the UK, of which 9 million are England fans and pretty much all of those tune in to watch a Six Nations game.
“So where we are isn’t where we need to be, or should be, compared to how big that market is, so that’s the challenge.”
Covid recovery will take ‘five-plus years’
The financial hit from the pandemic has resulted in a drastic lowering of the salary cap, from £6.4 million to £5 million, which has had an impact on the depth and quality of squads across the league.
No English side made the semi-finals of the Champions Cup, while a moratorium has also been placed on promotion and relegation in a bid to provide clubs with a semblance of financial security.
“With the salary cap we are having to reconcile ambition and growth opportunity – not only for the league but also how we compete in Europe and potential global competitions in the future – with the need to stay intact and have a sustainable growth out of Covid,” Massie-Taylor added.
“Covid recovery is going to be five-plus years for anyone, but especially within rugby, considering it was a loss-making environment previously.
“So I think when we build back the salary cap it needs to be at a sustainable level.
“I think the thing that has been really important over the last few months has been putting a plan together with the clubs that not only addresses their local market growth but looks at total market growth and total rugby growth.
“That is the realisation from everyone, that we need to double our numbers, and the opportunity is there to do it.”
‘Intention’ to bring back promotion and relegation
Massie-Taylor also reiterated plans to expand the league to 14 teams and then to re-introduce promotion and relegation via a play-off between the bottom team in the Premiership and the top team in the Championship.
However Ealing Trailfinders, who won the second-tier competition this season, failed to meet the criteria required for entry to the top flight, meaning the Premiership will stay as a 13-team division for the 2022-2023 campaign.
“That was disappointing for the league generally because we wanted to be a 14-team league, so it’s about making sure we can get there for next year and then it moves to promotion and relegation again and a play-off,” Massie-Taylor said.
“The intention is to have that mechanic, that is the intention, and we have to work with the RFU there.
“But then you also have to think about we somehow get the Championship up to a level when it can nurture that next Exeter, which is a difficult thing to do.
“It’s a tough challenge, speaking frankly, especially off the back of Covid. There isn’t the financial resource from the RFU or the Premiership clubs to invest in that [the Championship], so it’s about trying to create a sustainable platform for them to grow back up.
“There is no perfect solution for the Championship, but there is certainly a better one that we have got at the moment.
“A lot of processes are happening at the same time, whether it is the future of the women’s game, the future of the Championship, the global season piece. All of these things are happening, thankfully, roughly at the same time, which means we can consider all these things together.
“These topics are not sitting in someone’s in-tray as tomorrow’s problem. They are all linked and are all on the agenda at the moment. Over the next few years you would hope we have made a big step forward in the way things look and feel.”
Clubs ‘all in’ on women’s game
Another pressing matter for English rugby bosses is the future direction of the Premier 15s, with a number of Premiership clubs either already running their own women’s programmes, or aligning with a Premier 15 side, or announcing their desire to establish a women’s side in the future.
However the league is currently governed and run by the RFU, rather than Premiership Rugby, and Massie-Taylor says more involvement from the clubs is an inevitable next step.
“The Premier 15s was initially set up essentially as a performance league to start nurturing some of the future England talent, and it has very quickly moved to a commercial enterprise with a potential to really grow,” he said.
“That’s really exciting, so when you speak to the clubs they are all in as far as the future of women’s rugby and the importance of it. It’s about how you grow it sustainably and that requires a joint approach with the RFU.
“I think the clubs need to feel more of a sense of ownership around the future of the league, which is what we are discussing at the moment, but equally the RFU have to manage this very nascent state of the women’s game at the moment, around growing at the right pace and making sure at every level things are growing.
“So all of these things are on the table and being discussed at the moment, but it comes with a lot of momentum and a lot of excitement.”