Saracens. A bastard child of rugby and business. Born from an ugly coming together. Now shamed, shunned and spat out into the wilderness. It was a partnership that had us all a little bit worried. Rugby with its need to do things properly, fairly, respectfully; with its ability to win magnanimously and lose just as graciously. Business with its sideways glances and cutthroat ideas; smile and wave but above all else, make money. Money? What good ever came from money? Rugby’s foundations were laid by distancing itself from the dirty note. And yet here it is, in the 21st century, counting the finances with grubby fingers.
Unseemly pictures. Like that of Tony Rowe, cackling alongside Harry Williams after the prop-forward blatantly disregarded the laws and ethics of rugby and entered the field of play specifically to dish out some fist and elbow. Rowe, a man of infinite rugby qualities, accompanied the scene with a giggling grin as wide as the Exe itself. But that moment wasn’t rugby, that was business. Hence why Rowe found it so funny.
And yet it isn’t funny. The salary cap scandal is far-reaching. To think that any admonishment handed out will stop clubs trying to find ways around it is fanciful. In researching this piece, I spoke to representatives from different clubs, and all of them felt that their club had tried and would continue to try to find a way around the problem. None of those clubs were Saracens. And why should we be surprised? In sport it’s ‘cheating’ but in business it isn’t that malignant. Business has always been about finding a way around problems, and often those problems are laws. Words like loophole, interpretation, technicality are meat and drink to corporate lawyers. And it’s corporate lawyers that are now chucking a rugby ball around and trying to think of ways that their club can attract the best players and be the best team.
Here’s a situation: did you know that if a player goes out on loan, his salary, whilst out on loan, isn’t included in the cap? If a player is, say, long-term injured, there is nothing specific stopping a club from putting that player out on loan with another club to offset some of that salary against the cap. The player gets paid, still does his rehab, but is, crucially, outside of the cap. The player himself probably doesn’t even have to know. There’s nothing in the regulations about not doing this. So does that make it wrong? And if you don’t think there aren’t ten other ways like this, that clubs are looking to make work for them, then you are kidding yourself.
Rugby is now corporate. And if you are part of that machine, contributing, representing, making money for the company, then all well and good. But once you are out? Ellis Genge lifted the lid:
“How long were you at Wasps?” he asked of James Haskell on JOE’s House of Rugby podcast.
“12 years,” came the answer.
“How well do they look after you now?”
“They don’t speak to me.”
The business world rolled its eyes. Speak to you? You’re more likely to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements or be reminded of restrictive covenants when you move on in the business world. Loyalty? The only loyalty businesses are interested in is that of people who are paying.
Testimonial years are more and more infrequent. “They make absolutely no sense to us as a business,” a rugby CEO once said to me. “They lose time, money and resources for the club. As a business idea, they’re awful.” Testimonials exploit the amateur ideal held by fans as regards loyalty. It is the fan in us all that is asked to buy tickets to the testimonial dinner, rugby match and/or golf day to support the player. To say well done to a man who, in romantic rugby terms, has given his blood, sweat and tears to the same shirt (the one you love) for over ten seasons. But in pragmatic, business terminology, that player has just been paid continuously by the same company for more than a decade. Surely, the business should be lauded for that? Once again the two worlds rub up against each other awkwardly.
But above all else, this isn’t just Saracens’ problem. If you love professional rugby, this is our problem. And we have to own it. Money has changed the sport to the extent that it does not hold the same values that it did before. We must now judge our sport by business’ standards, not rugby’s. There is no glee to be found in this relegation. For wrapped up in Saracens’ demise is a disease that affects us all.
‘Money is a terrible master but an excellent servant’, said PT Barnum. Rugby has fallen foul of the former. We need to make money work for us. Let’s hope we can find our way out of this particular circus.