Italians and us stay poor, English and French get rich. That’s how it goes. Everybody knows

And it’s only going to get harder for the rest to keep their top players as cash floods into Top 14

Tue, Apr 1, 2014, 10:35

Next weekend will again witness the cream of the European crop having risen to the quarter-final stages. The eight remaining clubs have won 13 Heineken Cups out of 18 between them, with only Clermont and Saracens yet to sip from the trophy.They include the big three from both France and Ireland and the big two in England.

It is a credit to the Irish provinces that they continue to punch above their weight at the top of European rugby (and one ventures their uppity presence so irking the French and English clubs has been a factor in the top competition’s demise).

But the task this weekend and in years to come only looks like becoming more difficult. The remaining French trio of Toulouse, Clermont and Toulon last season had annual budgets of €34.5 million, €25.5 million and €21.8 million and while this takes in everything in the running of their clubs, which in Toulouse’s case also takes in other sports, their playing budgets dwarf those of their rivals .

In as much as one can accurately estimate the province’s annual budgets given their links with their IRFU paymasters, not least as the Union pay international contracts, the playing budgets of Leinster, Munster and Ulster would be €8 million at most.

According to La Dépéch e recently, the average annual budget for a Top 14 club has seen a €18.77m growth since 1996. The newspaper claimed the average wage for a player has gone from €900 per month in 1996 to €11,000.

Club annual budgets have risen from €230,000 up to an average of €19 million in that time. Champions Castres are operating on €15.6m and are the ninth biggest spenders in the league, according to the publication, which makes last season’s title success a minor phenomenon, if only possible via play-offs.

In addition to the emergence of private benefactors such as Mourad Boudjellal at Toulon and Jacky Lorenzetti at Racing Metro, the Top 14 coffers have been swelled by the recent deal they struck with Canal+, which has seen the broadcasting rights increase from €31.7m annually to €71m over a five-year period starting from next season.

Bearing in mind this heightened spending power, and increased threat to practically every leading rugby country in the world for their best players, the brave new world which the Ligue Nationale de Rugby and Premiership Rugby have orchestrated in the form of the impending European Champions Cup will only further swell their coffers.

LNR had called on other broadcasters to make offers for the Top 14 TV rights, despite their 20-year relationship with Canal+, no doubt mindful that the Al Jazeera-owned beIN Sport had entered the market.

In a bitter rivalry akin to that of the BT v Sky broadband/television war in Britain, Canal+ had threatened legal action over the Top 14 deal, and are embroiled in a legal dispute with beIN Sport over future rights to French football’s Ligue 1 which Le Monde yesterday entitled “La guerre du football à la television”.

This follows a decision by the tribunal de grande instance de Paris (TGI) last Friday to reject an appeal by Canal+ to suspend the bidding for the rights to Ligue 1 for 2016-20. Bids will now be tendered this week, by Friday, with offers for the rights to the Champions League in France to be tendered by next Monday, with the prospect of a ruling by the tribunal de commerce on a complaint by Cnal+ against beIN Sports for unfair competition.

Viewed in this climate, it will be interesting to see what happens with the French rights to the European Champions Cup. Heretofore, the LNR and French Federation have combined to ensure the Heineken Cup was shared between pay-per-view (Canal+) and free-to-air (France TV).

However, both the LNR and PRL have vowed the Celts and Italians will not receive any less from the European pot than they currently do from the ERC share of participation funds. As this is in the region of €20 million between the four countries, but will henceforth be a third of the split, with the French and English share rising from around 20.4 per cent and about €8.7 million apiece, new television and sponsorship deals will have to make up the difference.

This will have to be done with the proposed new model, a la football’s European Champions League the European Champions Cup will bring in four to six commercial partners as opposed to a title sponsor in the form of Heineken, and also with television income.

Hence it will be interesting to see if the French rights to the Heineken Cup will be sold exclusively to pay-per-view for the first time, whether to Canal+ and beIN Sports or a combination of the two. It’s hard to see how else the European Champions Cup can increase its turnover by at least 20% or €10 million.

If this comes to pass, then on top of their increased spending power from new improved television deals with Canal+ and BT respectively, the French and English clubs will see their take from the European pot more than double. Meantime, the Celts stay the same.

Might has been proven to be right, and the capacity of the French clubs to lure Irish players will be strengthened, with the English clubs also re-entering the market. All in all, setting up new offices in Switzerland, in part for tax reasons, and closing down ERC in Dublin seems somewhat symbolic. The war is about to get a whole lot tougher.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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