As part of our 'Future Rugby' series, columnist Paul Williams insists the days of big bucks are over
As someone who spends most of their time working in advertising (many will say that’s obvious based on the nonsense in my rugby content), the 1980s remain the glory period of that industry.
Back then it was all Porsches, expense accounts and clients who thought the sun shone out of their agency’s backside. When in fact what was shining, was the advertising-creative’s arrogance burning so brightly that their egos were visible through their rectums. That isn’t to say it isn’t still fun working in advertising, it really is, but the unfettered opulence is over – and justifiably so.
Rugby now finds itself in the same position, where the period from around 2005 to 2018 was rugby’s financial glory period. And sadly, for rugby players, they find themselves in the same place as those 1990s advertising creatives – competing in a market with collapsing budgets and the recruitment pool becoming more claustrophobic with every season that passes. Inevitably, rugby wages must reflect this.
Rugby finances on rocky ground
It was always going to happen. If there’d been a ‘rugby weather channel’ running over the past decade this financial storm would have been accurately predicted at least five years ago. The wealthy middle-aged men, who bought rugby clubs in 1996 and were able to make out-of-this-world signings (but within real world budgets), are no longer middle aged. And they have either chosen to sell their playthings or have sadly passed away. The subsequent reality is that rugby investment is largely the opposite of that. If it was a genuine investment, your independent financial adviser would have professional rugby available as a tick box on one of their forms, alongside shares and property – there’s a reason there isn’t.
As a result, many rugby markets especially in Wales, Australia, England and New Zealand are undergoing a ‘reset’ that is less akin to pressing ctrl-alt-delete on your laptop and almost identical to pressing the launch button on a nuclear console. This isn’t the case in all markets of course. Japan, Ireland and France are thriving and remain the envy of the world – especially Ireland. A nation with a small population in global terms, but one which is (Rugby World Cup quarter-finals aside) punching above its weight to the point where it is almost delivering headbutts.
The upshot is that the traditional professional rugby player’s career, as we know it, is sadly over. This doesn’t mean they can’t earn a great living, top rugby wages will still be way above most of us. But for the majority, the six-bedroom house, BMW 7 Series lifestyle is going to be very hard to achieve. This reality has been particularly evident in England and Wales over the past 18 months. In Wales, a lot of good players have gone from living the dream to fish fingers and beans. Some regions in Wales can barely select a third-choice lock anymore, let alone pay them £75k. And from next season, with further budget cuts planned, squad injuries could seriously harm your season come February.
Amateur rugby audiences took a long time to accept that most rugby players would play for more than just their beloved club in a full pro career. But now audiences are having to come to terms with players not only switching clubs every two seasons, but regularly swapping leagues and sometimes even the Test teams they play for. As difficult as it is to take, the ‘hybrid’ rugby career is now here to stay.
Three seasons in Wales, three in France, three in England and then three in Japan, topped off with a season in Super Rugby could now be the norm for some. The Super Rugby/ Japan hybrid model is now almost standard practice for Kiwi Test players. But perhaps the greatest change for a modern pro is having to put their earnings before that of their international ambitions.
More league hopping for rugby wages
Even a decade ago moving overseas for big rugby wages, at the expense of your Test career, was akin to switching to rugby league in the mid 80s. Yet now, those decisions are becoming more understandable. Unless you’re a guaranteed ‘starting 23’ player, why would you gamble on getting a few weeks holding tackle backs for your Test team, when you could guarantee £250K a year in France?
Or course, the most radical issue for professional players, doesn’t involve money but the health of their body and specifically the brain. Over the past 30 years if you’d asked most players (outside of the front row) which injury they feared the most, it would probably be knee related.
That is no longer the case. You can still get around with a crutch or a limp; once your brain is impacted, life becomes difficult. This deeply concerning issue has a huge impact on the career decisions players make from this point on. The length of career, earnings potential, and future career opportunities beyond the game, have always been entwined with potential catastrophic injury. But with concussion, it exacerbates the situation.
As much as we’d all like to take pro rugby back to it’s infancy in 1996 (a time when we were all thinner and had more hair) that ship has sailed and in some cases in England, sunk. The fallout for fans has been extreme in some cases, especially in Worcester and the like. But the real ‘losers’ are the players. Even with teams like Bristol supposedly keen on a salary cap increase, it’ll never happen – they’re reporting £5million pre-tax losses for 2022/23. The fact that a team like Bristol is even contemplating a salary cap increase (and there are apparently three other teams in the English Premiership who feel the same) is as ghoulish, as it is selfish.
Rugby’s financial heyday, or payday, is behind it and the sooner everyone realises it, the better it’ll be for all.
What do you think of the state of rugby’s wages and finances today? Let us know on social media or email firstname.lastname@example.org