SBJ/December 20 - 26, 1999/No Topic Name

Plan would change face of pro rugby

The owner of a Formula One team has proposed radical reform for rugby union, setting off a debate on what the pro rugby league should look like and whether it should even exist at all.

Tom Walkinshaw, owner of the Arrows Formula One team as well as the Gloucester rugby team, has proposed setting up a new 16-team British rugby league — including four teams from Wales and two from Scotland — to replace the current all-English Allied Dunbar Premiership of 12 teams. The struggling league is in its third season.

The Walkinshaw proposal would create a franchise system, with owners putting up $1.6 million to get a team and become shareholders in a new league company. The owners would get their money back if they decided to pull out. Participating teams would get $1.6 million a year for five years. For the first four years there would be no relegation of the bottom clubs in the new elite circuit to lower leagues.

The financial backing for the plan has not been revealed, but pay-TV operator BSkyB is thought to be an interested party.

Meanwhile, skeptics remain unconvinced that the sport is big enough for a full-blown pro loop at all. Soccer is so dominant in Britain that rugby, whose season overlaps with it, is left scrummaging for financial crumbs. A new salary cap of $2.9 million a team will come into effect before the 2000-01 season kicks off in the fall.

The Premiership rugby clubs lost more than $25 million last year, estimates Richard Moon, secretary of the Rugby Union Players Association. He said bluntly: "I don't believe that at the current level rugby union can be a sustainable professional game — even with a salary cap. It can be semiprofessional. Rugby is not football [soccer], and it will never be able to pay football wages."

Rob Andrew, a retired player who was the first big name to go pro five years ago, has been named by England's Rugby Football Union, which is reasserting its central role in the game, to head a working party to counter the Walkinshaw plan. The top priority apparently is to keep the league all-English, thereby preventing dilution of the organization's power over the league.

Also on the agenda is improving the rugby schedule, which is overshadowed by the big annual tournament for national teams, the Six Nations, kicking off in early 2000. Games drag on throughout the winter, but a proposal would squeeze the tournament into April and May. An idea of shifting the whole tournament to May was put forward by the Rugby Football Union in 1995 but failed to take hold.

Jay Stuart is editorial director of SporTVision magazine and Sports TV Report and Sports Investor newsletters.

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