Mark Evans: Key to club growth: spend on grounds, not players

After winning a World Cup any sport can be forgiven for getting a little carried away. Theinterest in the wake of last week has been unprecedented. Naturally, among all the hype a certain amount of nonsense has been spouted. Let's get one thing straight - rugby is not, and never will be, a national game. Talk of rivalling football in the affections of the nation is silly.

The real opportunity is for rugby to establish itself as another major winter team sport in England to sit alongside the round-ball code. With more than 50m people in a sports-mad nation there is room for another significant presence - albeit on a smaller scale. Ireland and Australia have much smaller populations but they support three or four major spectator sports comfortably. In those countries rugby union has to battle for spectators against the likes of Aussie Rules, rugby league, Gaelic football and hurling. Across the Atlantic, with admittedly a much larger population, there are four major professional team sports - baseball, ice-hockey, basketball and American football - as well as huge university-based sports programmes.

In England there is football and not much else besides the two rugby codes. Indeed it is interesting to ponder how big rugby might already be if the big northern cities of Leeds, Bradford, Hull and Manchester had not "broken away'' just over 100 years ago. But perhaps that strand of analysis is best left to the historians.

But now the opportunity for rugby is enormous. Since the onset of professionalism in 1996 the Premiership clubs and others have worked tirelessly to establish viable businesses in testing conditions.

Some, such as Leicester, inherited a wonderful legacy in terms of support base and facilities. Others, like Newcastle, have started more or less from scratch and have had to rely on wealthy individual investors who cannot realistically expect to see a return for years. Huge amounts of time and effort have been expended by marketing and community teams to grow interest and crowds. Their aim remains to root their clubs and their sport within their local area. Now all these schemes will receive a huge fillip - it will still need focused, dedicated people working intelligently, but with the heightened profile of the game the task will be easier.

Easier but not without pitfalls. For there are two obvious ways in which all this goodwill and potential could be dissipated. The first is the risk that haunts all professional sports - that all the increased revenues will simply find their way straight through to the pay-packets of the players. What Alan Sugar so evocatively called the "prune juice'' effect. Nobody would argue that the participants should not be properly rewarded. But it has to be managed. At present all clubs operate under a flat wage cap of about £1.9m. Abolish this and the game will spiral out of control. By all means increase it over time as revenues increase. But do it that way round. Create the value then distribute, and avoid making promises based on possible future earnings.

At the same time the game has to find a way to finance the development of modern stadia. The biggest obstacle to growth at a professional level is the lack of high quality, rugby-friendly stadiums. With the exception of Newcastle and Northampton, grounds are either too small, too old or too football orientated.

Addressing this issue will require a real partnership between the RFU and Premier Rugby - but without it we will not have the capacity to retain more than a small percentage of those people who have a rekindled interest in the game.

The other great opportunity might be easier to pull off. Just like in 1991 there will be a huge surge in people who wish to play. This will manifest itself predominantly in another boom in mini-rugby. Clubs all over the country will increase their numbers of registered junior players. The challenge will be to translate this into more adult players. Social change in the country at large mitigates against this but with developments that have taken place in the RFU's community department there is a fair chance of success.

Which just might set up a virtuous circle, since all the research suggests that most people who watch rugby live have either played it or are closely linked to someone who has. In this way growth in the grass roots helps the growth of the professional game which in turn underpins England's success.

So there you have it - keep wages in line with revenue, invest in facilities and the grass roots and win again in 2007. Piece of cake.

Mark Evans is chief executive of Harlequins.

HOW THE PREMIERSHIP CLUBS MEASURE UP

By Hugh Godwin

Bath

Ground: The Rec: Capacity: 9,980.

Last Premiership game: 9,980 Raised capacity by 1,700 for the next three seasons with temporary East Stand. A covenant prevents more building.

Gloucester

Ground: Kingsholm (11,000).

Last Premiership game: 11,000

Published outline plans in September to increase capacity to 14,000.

Harlequins

Ground: The Stoop (9,500).

Last Premiership game: 6,223

Led way with East Stand along touchline in 1997. Planning issues restrict more.

Leeds

Ground: Headingley (24,000).

Last Premiership game: 3,205

Plenty of room at what has been a joint home with rugby league club since 1996.

Leicester

Ground: Welford Road (16,811).

Last Premiership game: 15,384

Plans "over next two or three years" to increase capacity to 20,000-22,000.

London Irish

Ground: Madejski Stadium (24,200).

Last Premiership game: 5,843

Signed seven-year deal in 2001 to extend stay at Reading FC's bespoke stadium.

Newcastle

Ground: Kingston Park (10,000).

Last Premiership game: 5,452

£12m refurbishment finished in January. Hit capacity for first time yesterday.

Northampton

Ground: Franklin's Gardens (12,500).

Last Premiership game: 11,292

Refurbishment finished for now. New stands on three sides, with clubhouse and hospitality boxes at one end.

Rotherham

Ground: Millmoor (11,158).

Last Premiership game: 2,500

Forced to quit Clifton Lane, a cricket ground, by Premiership's eligibility criteria.

Sale

Ground: Edgeley Park (10,817).

Last Premiership game: 3,367

Left Heywood Road in summer to start joint venture with Stockport County.

Saracens

Ground: Vicarage Road (22,000).

Last Premiership game: 5,013

Laying out around £500,000 a year to share with Watford FC.

Wasps

Ground: Causeway Stadium (10,200)

Last Premiership game: 5,151

In theory, Wasps are obliged to return to Loftus Road at the end of this season.

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