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Can Scottish Rugby Afford A New Pro Team?

And if so, how would they go about making one?

In his second article in a series looking at what can be done to improve Scottish Rugby, James Maclean explores whether a 3rd professional team is now possible.

They say two’s company and three’s a crowd. If you’re a Scotland fan, chances are you’ll have craved a poly relationship with your rugby.

For over a decade Scots have been forced to live in a binary East/West Edinburgh/Glasgow world when it comes to professional rugby, which has left people in the North and South without any top level games to watch – lest they’re willing to travel cross-country.

Club and schools rugby are the highest level of rugby available for many

Sure enough, the local clubs have filled the void admirably and are still the lifeblood of the game at the top and bottom of our nation, but without a fully professional side and the visibility that produces, it remains difficult for them to compete with the likes of football when it comes to bringing in new players and supporters. 

In terms of the national team, with just 2 squads to choose from Gregor Townsend only has around 80 players (and a few exiles plying their trades in England and France) at his disposal. To put this into perspective, there are approximately 680 English qualified players in the Gallagher Premiership and Greene King Championship. That’s 8.5x more than us. A fact that makes our back-to-back Calcutta Cup wins all the more extraordinary.  

Gregor Townsend needs a bigger pool to pick from

Our fellow Celts in the Pro14 can also boast double our qualified players, which goes some way to explaining their success in the 6 Nations. And it’s the same the world over. New Zealand, South Africa, France and Australia all have hundreds of players to select their national teams from. Even Japan and the US have more full time players thanks to their Top League and Major League Rugby. The standard of both competitions may not be as high as the Pro14, but they’ve grand plans and are building year on year.

Which leaves Scotland on a par with Italy and Argentina in terms of pro players. It seems clear that if we don’t want to be left behind and drop into the 2nd tier, then we really need to look at expanding the pro game, and sharpish.

So, if Scotland are to grow the game across the nation and add to the very shallow pool of professional players, then what have we been waiting for? Answer: Money. Filthy lucre. Dosh. Sheets.

Scottish Rugby has spent the past couple of decades languishing in huge debt, in part due to the cost of running 4 teams following the advent of professionalism. Former Chief Execs Phil Anderton and Gordon McKie were forced into finding ways to trim the financial fat, with the latter opting for the kind of austerity that would make Angela Merkel blush. First it was the Northern based Caledonian Reds who were ‘merged’ with Glasgow in 1998, before the Southern Border Reivers were folded into Edinburgh, briefly revived, then killed off for good in 2007. 

Fans are bored of excuses

In the long years since there have been countless calls from fans and top players for the reinstatement of at least a 3rd team, but the reply from the SRU has always been the same – no money. However, that excuse may no longer be valid. As I detailed in my article yesterday, Scotland suddenly look set to receive between £35-85 million following the Pro14 & Six Nations deals with investment firm CVC. 

The news of impending riches will undoubtedly see many impassioned cases for investment made across the game, none more so than from the grassroots that have been massively neglected (a subject I’ll be coming to in the coming days), but it is clear from the sheer quantity of comments we received yesterday on social media that a 3rd Pro team is top of most Scotland supporter’s wish lists this Christmas.

And it’s not just the fans who want to see a new pro team. Much as they’re villainised, it seems from all reports that Scottish Rugby and head honcho Mark Dodson have been trying everything over the past few years to bridge the gap and create a pathway for more players. We’ve seen calls for external investment in a new team, a partnership with lowly French side Stade Niçois, the London Scottish debacle, plans to buy Worcester Warriors and even a minority investment in MLR team Old Glory. Each attempt has seemed more desperate than the last, but at least it’s clear that the desire is there.

So, if the fans are keen and the SRU are up for a new 3rd pro team, surely it’s going to happen?

Before we dust off our old Cally/Borders shirts and scarves let’s figure out if it’s feasible. The SRU don’t release figures for the running costs of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but in 2016 Dodson told the BBC that “somewhere along the lines of £7m or £8m is what it costs to run a really well-financed professional rugby team for a year.” Now rugby wages have undoubtedly gone up in the 3 years since, but let’s be more conservative by dropping the ‘really’ and just go for a ‘well financed’ rugby team. If we box smart and don’t splash out on too much marquee talent then that’s achievable.

There are lessons to be learnt from two Premiership sides

Thankfully the Gallagher Premiership do release their number, so there’s last season’s finances to go on. At the top end you have Wasps who spend an eye watering £17m on wages, whereas at the bottom you have Sale Sharks on £6.5m. You’ll be relieved to hear that wages don’t just relate to players and that the Wasps amount is undoubtedly skewed by the fact they use the Ricoh Arena for music and other sporting events, so will employ far more people. 

What’s also encouraging is that Sale finished last season a place above Wasps in 7th. So if we’re as smart as Steve Diamond is with his chequebook, then there’s no reason we can’t do well on the lower end of Dodson’s estimate.

The other interesting figures found in the Premiership budgets relate to turnover. At the top end you once again have Wasps on £33.4m (with a huge amount coming from non-rugby events at the Ricoh), and at the bottom you’ve also got Sale on £8.3m. Guess who finished the year in finer fettle? Sale. 

In spite of owning their own stadium and having a huge turnover, Wasps made a £3.7m loss before tax. Sale, who don’t own their stadium, spent the least on wages in the league (well below the Salary Cap) and have the lowest turnover lost just £800,000 and did better on the pitch.

There are a lot of lessons the SRU you could learn from Sale. Whilst they may not be the first team that springs to mind when you think of English rugby powerhouses, they could be a good template for prudent investment.

Their £8.3m revenue that comes from gate receipts, sponsorship, merchandise and RFU player release payments would be an achievable target for any new Scottish pro team. It will of course take time to build, and they might not break even for a while, but with a similarly modest wage bill of £6.5m you wouldn’t have to make much income to bring any loss down to a relatively negligible figure.

Connacht provide inspiration

The other template would be Connacht. The province was long seen as a development team by the Irish Rugby Union and for years received far less investment than their bigger brothers Munster, Leinster and Ulster. But develop talent they did. The likes of Robbie Henshaw, Jack Carty, Sean Cronin, Ian Keatley and Eoin Reddan all got their big breaks playing on Connacht’s windswept pitch.

With time and success came increased investment, culminating in their spectacular 20–10 Grand Final victory over big bro Leinster in 2016. A quick scan across their squad tells you that they’re probably still not on a par with the other 3 Irish provinces in terms of player wages, but so what?

Scotland could launch a new team in the financial model of Sale Sharks with the purpose of Connacht. As success and revenue built, so could the budget and the share of top players.

But where to find the players I hear you ask? Well this would be tricky in the first year and would probably mean some dilution of the Edinburgh and Glasgow teams. Admittedly, this isn’t ideal and I can imagine Richard Cockerill and Dave Rennie (or whoever will replace him Danny Wilson) being a little miffed. But Cockerill has made it publicly clear that he understands the Scottish setup when it comes to losing players to the national cause as he has on various occasions care of the Sevens. 

Experienced players whose time is limited at Edinburgh or Glasgow could add leadership

So let’s say we take 25% of both Glasgow and Edinburgh’s squads and move them to the new team. We’re not talking about star players but a smattering of young upstarts and old pros to show ‘em the way. I could see guys like Chris Fusaro and Tom Brown finding a new lease of life at the burgeoning team. 

Glasgow currently have 5 hookers on the books and more centres than they know what to do with. Equally, Edinburgh have wings aplenty and could spare a back rower or two without being too hamstrung. Supplement them with some of the top U20’s squad and academy lads, tempt a few back from England/France (hello Rory Hutchinson/Gary Graham!), add in a few exciting foreign recruits and you’ve got a squad. In time you could ease in more young Scottish talent and bring down the number of mercenaries.

A significant advantage for a new Scottish team would be the SRU themselves. The central body would be able to help with merchandise deals, sponsorship, marketing and logistics – all of which bring down the wage bill and increase the income in comparison to a Premiership team. There would be no point having a big staff when a lot can be done by the SRU’s existing team.

Jamie Joseph coached both Japan and the Sunwolves

You could achieve another pretty significant reduction in the wage bill by making a player/coach role. Another interesting alternative is to appoint Gregor Townsend the role. But surely he’s already got a job, where would he find the time you may ask? Well this is exactly what Jamie Joseph did with the Sunwolves in Japan last season. He doubled up as both the Coach of the national team and the Head Coach of their Super Rugby team – and that didn’t work out too badly now did it! You’d need someone to cover during internationals, but I’m sure an existing employee like old Al Kellock could dust off his tracksuit.

Another big cost saving over the Sharks figure would come from not having to pay on any youth development because there are already Academies in Aberdeen and Borders and East Lothian. By working closely with both the existing Academy and their closest Super6 side Stirling County or Southern Knights, they should also get a steady stream of talent.

The academies are starting to produce some great talent

So, and this is the big question for many a fan, where would a team be based? This is a tricky one because the Borders are the traditional rugby heartland with young players aplenty, but the other top candidate Aberdeen has the population in terms of size/density and potential investment opportunities. So I’m going to stick my neck out and go for the latter…to start with. I say to start because based on the numbers above (and some quick back of a fag packet calculations) we could actually launch two new pro teams if we play our cards right.

It would be difficult to build two entirely new majority Scottish teams at the same time due to the lack of available and experienced SQ players – finding 60-80 odd players out of thin air would either mean drafting in foreign qualified players, or filling them almost entirely with kids. I can’t see the Pro14 being happy with two more teams getting destroyed every week. Zebre and the Kings already fulfil that quota. But who knows, maybe they’d prefer the symmetry of a Pro16 over the Pro15.

So I would advocate creating the first team in Aberdeen and aiming to make a pessimistic loss of no more than £3m in their first season – reducing over time. With wages equal to Sale Sharks (£6.5m) and slightly lower operating costs for stadium rental & travel etc (£2m) it would require a turnover of only around £5.5 million. That’s still a lot of money, especially for a startup team.

Whilst the price of oil might not be what it once was, there’s still a lot of money in them there granite hills of Aberdeen. The Scottish Rich List is dominated by Aberdeen tycoons and their companies would be likely candidates for sponsorship. They’re also the perfect audience for plush hospitality packages and you could envisage a good deal of income flowing from boozy boxes. Rugby has often been seen as a rich man’s game in Scotland, so maybe that could be used to our collective advantage. Add in season ticket sales/merchandise and £5.5m doesn’t seem so unachievable.

The aforementioned Sale Sharks bring in an average of 6244 fans per game, which is well below Glasgow’s average and should be an achievable target within a season or two. Super6 attendances seem to holding steady at between 1-1.5 thousand supporters, so if semi pro teams can pull in the thousands from a standing start, it’s not inconceivable that an Aberdeen based fully pro team could get around 5/6 thousand.

Pittodrie would be an ideal stadium

Finally, where would they play? Well Pittodrie Stadium has hosted international rugby before and has a 20,000 capacity – which puts it in the goldilocks sweet spot between too small to grow into and too big for atmosphere. Its future is quite uncertain with Aberdeen FC moving into their swanky new ground in a couple of years, but the SRU could either see about taking up the permanent sole residency or seeing if Aberdeen fancy stadium sharing at their new digs in Kingsford.

So what of the Borders, we can’t see such a proud Scottish rugby region left out. I would advocate using the Aberdeen club as a proof of concept. Spend a year or two building that up and then launching the Borders team to play at either the Greenyards or back at Netherdale. The former would be preferable as they have a 15,000 capacity and 3G pitch, but either would work to get started. By that point the Super6 would be in full swing and hopefully providing a good bridging point between the Scottish Premiership and fully professional rugby, so finding players wouldn’t be as much of a problem.

So back to the cold hard cash. After paying off the last £9.97 million of SRU debt and making a loss of £3million in the first year, £1.5 in the second for an Aberdeen team – we’d only be down by £14.47 million from the pot of between £35/85 million. The aim would then be to break even and introduce the Border side with a similar loss ratio. 

Now of course all these numbers are speculative guesstimates and based on the limited information we could glean, but as ballpark figures they’re highly encouraging and lead to the conclusion that if not now, when? This is the time for Scottish Rugby to have another go at putting out 4 fully pro teams. Let’s hope the SRU agree.

In my next article I’ll be looking at what could be done to help the Scottish national team.

What do you think? Is the plan viable? Could Scotland launch a new team? Should they? Where would you want it? Let us know in the comments below.↓

James Maclean Enthusiast

Written by James Maclean

James is an experienced Writer and Creative Director with a passion for Scottish rugby and a never ending capacity for sporting optimism.

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