Tyrrells’ decision not to extend their sponsorship of the women’s elite league in England shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise.
But it did. The news comes very late in the calendar.
Most types of company have lived through troubled times this year. Few can afford largesse. Since Tyrrells’ contract wasn’t due to run out till next August, the RFU left itself with so little wriggle-room that it’s almost invisible. Between now and a hoped-for start of the fourth season in mid-September, they have to find a new sponsor when such creatures are as rare as gold dust.
It is a cold irony that the coronavirus has benefits alongside all the untold harm it has done. Within the world of English women’s rugby any delay would help both the RFU in its search for a new sponsor and the two new club-members, Exeter and Sale, in their search for players.
It was hard enough finding a sponsor three years ago. Few would have imagined a crisp manufacturer being the saviour. Tyrrells’ headquarters lie in Herefordshire. When they organised last season’s launch there, it appears there were more players present than media reps huddled under dripping umbrellas. Their presence at TP 15s matches was hard to spot, and I’ve attended many on nine grounds.
Even if a new sponsor is appointed over the summer, it leaves little time for necessary alterations to take place. Every ground had Tyrrells paraphernalia on view: goal-post guards, flag-poles, match-balls, advertising boards… All must be removed and replaced with updated versions. Let’s hope the RFU can find a new sponsor and ensure that they are happy to put their full weight behind the enterprise.
Hopes and Aspirations
The RFU’s commercial director was optimistic about finding that replacement. We wonder how justified he will prove to be.
What attendances had the clubs and the RFU hoped for when the Tyrrells first set sail in September 2017? Did they expect the official figure to be 345 per match two seasons later? That number may be much bigger than average gates reached back in the days of the Premiership, but it is no sort of launching-pad for self-supporting professionalism.
Few of the grounds are well located for advertising their presence. Of the ten clubs entering the fourth season Gloucester-Hartpury lie right out in the countryside; Bristol, DMP, Exeter, Sale and Worcester have grounds on the outskirts of town; Loughborough, like G-H, use a university campus; Saracens’ Allianz Park is notoriously tricky to reach; Wasps occupy a ground off a quiet side street; Quins have the choice of Surrey Sports Park, another out-of-town campus facility, or the Stoop, which is perhaps best positioned and best known.
They have led the way in attracting larger gates, but even they have not yet reached 5.000. That’s a long way ahead of the 345 figure, but leaves women’s pro-rugby at club level still looking like a distant dream.
Where does that leave Women’s Pro-Rugby?
That is the position in England. Only France of the remaining Six Nations can match those figures. Support in the Celtic countries and Italy is enthusiastic but thinner on the ground. Transfer the money shortage from England to them, and the hopes for widespread professionalism seem premature.
It has been seen as the holy grail for many a year, but it seems so elusive.
The contracted England players are in no doubt about the advances it has brought them. They can play the game they love while enjoying proper preparation and – most important of all? – the time to recover post-match. That is the upside of the position, so why do they remain the only 15s players in the world in this privileged position?
It didn’t need Covid-19 for awkward questions to emerge. Men’s rugby is still struggling to come to terms with full professionalism, even despite full houses of 82,000 at England’s home matches. One reason for the southern hemisphere nations to be so keen on a global calendar is that they find it hard to make ends meet.
Top players are earning sums of money that were unimaginable when the game changed course dramatically in the mid-1990s. Some diehards withdrew from the game as amateurism was replaced by a dual structure that allowed payment to players at and just below elite level. Clubs’ bank balances have suffered increasingly in the process.
Women had to wait twenty years for the first contracts to be awarded. Since then progress towards worldwide professionalism has been slower than the average snail.
The sad fact is that the women’s game is dependent on the men’s for its income. Though test-match gates have increased rapidly over the last three years, they are nowhere near large enough to help pay the wages of the forty-six players sent on to the field. And the men’s game is in dire straits. Even before the pandemic closed the doors on further matches only one Premiership club, Exeter Chiefs, was still in the black. Championship clubs are worse off. Two have already announced they will be going semi-pro, as they can no longer afford to pay their players the full whack.
When it came to selecting the ten clubs to embark on a fourth season of the women’s elite league – will it be redubbed ‘Super League’? – the RFU’s policy was to favour Premiership clubs; so out go Richmond and Waterloo; in come Exeter and Sale. The tacit assumption was that money would always be there to support the players.
All ten clubs will be grateful for whatever the RFU manages to set aside for the women’s game. Newspaper headlines offer wide-ranging guesses at the losses the RFU will have suffered by the time the game is allowed to restart; but most end in seven noughts.
The aim should surely be for every pro-sport to be self-financing. Hardly any of them are. They depend on TV contracts or billionaires. Football clubs are currently in danger because they are unable to fulfil the matches they were contracted for with TV companies.
How much is women’s rugby worth at present? Its greatest annual championship, the Six Nations, still doesn’t have a sponsor. It is covered by pay-tv, which limits the audience. Lets hope the new-style Super League will be made available to the widest audience possible.
Even the World Cup may need to be underwritten by World Rugby to a larger degree than ever before.
Now we all wait to see how long it takes to resume the game. Current indicators are cautiously optimistic.