Rugby Union: There is a way out of the mess

The current chaos is neither unexpected nor terminal, argues Peter Deakin
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The Independent Online
A PAL of mine recently damaged his knee playing squash. The doctor simply said that he had sustained very serious damage, but with a little positive application, there is no reason why he should not play again. Perhaps a refreshing way to begin a brief article on professional rugby would be to think positively and to state clearly up front that very little of the following is based solely on opinion - it's just how it is.

Recent criticisms of the professional game, including in this paper, have really hurt. They have done so because, in fact, we are doing so much not only to progress rugby union towards becoming a leading professional sport, but we are also setting new standards for professional sport generally throughout the United Kingdom.

Would it be realistic seriously to expect an established amateur sport to move seamlessly to professionalism? Of course not; there inevitably will be a raft of challenges as the sport grows and finds its place. This is, even 40 or so years on, still being evidenced by what is happening in professional football, the national sport, which is still regularly stumbling and fumbling its way from challenge to challenge.

Being cynical would be to suggest that there is no way out of the present mess, but being realistic would be to say that problems in professional sport are hardly unexpected. Cynicism is not realism.

The advances made in only two full seasons of rugby union, as the sport has taken on board professional status, have been nothing short of phenomenal: an established Premiership sponsor; a Professional Players' Association; improved playing standards; increased column inches in the press; a growing fan base; and, perhaps most importantly, a very positive image of the players in terms of role models and self-discipline.

Yes, there are other, less welcome developments such as the eroding of the player base and the sport's governing body failing to provide leadership, but these two particular trends have not just happened with the advent of professionalism. They have been niggling away at the game for years.

So, let's try to present some of the more positive facts and give rugby union a chance. Here at Saracens, Nigel Wray is part of a team (albeit a crucial one) who firmly believe in what they are trying to achieve. The members of this team include players, coaches, development officers, salesmen, marketing staff, strategists, teachers - the list goes on.

These people are using their proven skills to build a business in sport and are not merely passengers on the "Rugby Titanic". It is the same at other clubs, or at least at those who are not just "playing" at professional rugby union.

Saracens do not deal in rocket science and have no cosmetic gimmicks to massage the truth. Our average gate so far this season stands at just over 10,000; our community programme recently won a national award for the Best Community Sports Programme in the country (it was presented by the Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, at Twickenham); more than 13,000 young people have been involved in the programme in 14 months; Saracens' CashBack Scheme, which enables local clubs, schools and charities to generate funds for themselves when they buy tickets for games, has been able to give more than pounds 100,000 back into the area; and, last but not least, our season-ticket sales have increased from 900 to just over 3,000 in a year.

There is no trick or sleight of hand involved in this. It is a business truism that when you start to get growth, if you have laid the right type of foundations, that growth will be strong. Most of the clubs in the Premiership are trying to build along these lines, offering a community-led marketing plan, but it takes time.

Expressing an opinion is a given right, especially in a sporting context, but opinion carries more weight when the whole picture is considered. My pal, like professional rugby union, cannot just take a pill and get back up and running - he will need to focus his efforts and think positively. In life, your glass is either half full or half empty.

Peter Deakin is sales and marketing director at Saracens