Fijian Drua CEO Mark Evans examines the state of play in the Premiership after London Irish's demise

The warning signs have been flashing for decades, but could losing London Irish be the final Premiership wake-up call. Covid may have brought things to a head, but a crisis in the Premiership was inevitable.

The problems were baked in as PRL was never envisaged as a regulator and was not designed as such. From the outset it was compromised, with the executive answering to the clubs rather than acting in the interests of the league.

Related: “Ripping their hearts out” – Reaction to London Irish’s downfall

It was easy for a small number of clubs – as few as three on major issues – to block reforms. Alliances of convenience became common. Very few owners were experienced in sports business. They tended to be successful entrepreneurs. Intuitively they distrusted regulation and believed the market forces that served them so well would work. Many were genuine fans with love of the club or town, whilst nearly all of them were busy elsewhere. Some were only interested in winning, which is fine if structures are in place to limit what individual clubs can do. They weren’t. 

There were casualties – Orrell, London Scottish and Richmond fell away quickly. Later, Leeds and London Welsh. There were successful new entrants such as Exeter, but over the last 25 years the areas lost far outweigh the new markets.

Nevertheless by 2004 it was possible to be optimistic. The league roughly broke even. Not bad for a start-up. Some basics like a salary cap, minimum standards criteria and designated academy areas were established. However, this was the high-water mark.

All other measures that are required to grow a new league were not adopted. No independent commission with non-executive members and an empowered executive. No independent financial regulator to police the cap and ensure basic viability. No maximum squad size. No cap collar. No collective bargaining agreement. No removal of unnecessary and costly competitions. No serious efforts to wrestle with the need for a functioning second tier. 

It goes on. No meaningful resources for central marketing or other collective projects. No recognition that clubs in smaller markets need more resources. No controls on executive pay. No fit and proper persons process. No fixed link between revenues and costs. No clear division of responsibility between league and the union. No real attempt to explain how to grow league size over time, whilst also not having promotion and relegation. So many things missing.

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Instead, we had a series of ‘amnesties’ and increases in the cap. We had a misguided belief that market forces would sort things out, when a quick look around the sporting world would demonstrate that this was very unlikely. We had a competition largely decided by size of your local market or depth of your owners’ pockets, rather than ensuring uncertainty of outcome and cycles of success. To be successful, you had to match the higher salaries. Otherwise, you ‘lacked ambition’ and watched your best players leave for higher wages and the lure of trophies. 

We believed there would always be another rich guy to bankroll each club – until they started to dry up. Eventually, in a desperate grab for cash to keep some teams afloat, a damaging deal was done with CVC, with a percentage of the value that had been created sold in perpetuity. When that windfall was largely swallowed up by the pandemic, the crisis was only a matter of time.

There were factors the Premiership didn’t control that aggravated the situation. But the clubs could have fixed so many things themselves and didn’t.

As a result we have lost clubs, shrunk the footprint of the game and incurred huge reputational damage. Will this be the final wake-up call that leads to a new model being adopted? Even if some measures required will be very unpopular in the short run? I hope so, but I’m not exactly confident.

This article first appeared in the August edition of Rugby World magazine.

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