Matt Williams: Rugby should learn from the NFL and align the global game

It’s time for all nations to sing from the same hymn sheet if the game is going to survive

The English Premiership and Top 14 have a political power over World Rugby’s decision making. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Here in Sydney it is a hot and humid January. In Europe, the last rounds of Champions Cup pool stages and the Six Nations are about to start but in the south late summer is the pre-season.

Across the Indian Ocean, the South African provincial teams have decided to play at home in the heat of an African summer and away in the cold of the northern winter. The South Africans have broken the link to their traditional seasons. While their schools and local clubs continue to play domestically in the southern autumn and winter, their professional teams have moved to home games in the summer.

Despite all the ramifications of the South African decisions, they are making the first tentative step to form a globally aligned professional club season. I believe that rugby in Australia would also benefit from aligning itself with the north as it is currently swamped by the enormity of the other domestic codes in AFL and rugby league.

Major League Rugby (MLR) in the USA and Super League, rugby league's UK competition, have all made the conscious decision to play their seasons in the summer, away from the giant shadow that the NFL in America and the Premier League cast over TV rights, media coverage, sponsorship and the hearts and minds of the punters.

Harlequins host London Irish at the Twickenham Stoop in September 2020 - the early stages of the European domestic season. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty

In Australia, the opposite has occurred. The A-League, the national soccer competition, has moved its season to the summer, away from the vastly more popular AFL and rugby league seasons. The strategic changes to their seasons are made because the sports are attempting to increase both media coverage and revenue streams while attracting new supporters.

In February MLR will commence its fifth season across the American summer, dodging the NFL and aligning itself with Super Rugby in Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and the domestic South African clubs - the areas that supply the vast majority of the MLR's foreign players.

The Top 14, the English Premiership and the United Rugby Championship remain wedged in the days of empires and the Raj, insisting on the madness of playing from August to June in France and September until late May for the rest.

All of these micro-decisions on competition playing calendars are being made by individual unions and not by World Rugby. Unlike almost every other world sport, rugby has no strategic plan for its global playing programmes.

Cultural phenomenon

As the NFL’s play-offs commence this weekend we should remember that American Football had its origins in rugby. The NFL today is a domestic competition that is a worldwide sporting and cultural phenomenon. It is also a financial behemoth.

It is the intensity of the NFL’s relatively short, 18-match season that drives the world’s fascination with the sport. It is brilliantly marketed and presented for TV audiences. Packaged up in a bow of high skill and tough body contact. It is then sold to the world for a hefty price.

Of course, all of that appears to be far too logical for rugby.

Compared to the NFL, the French Top14 is an ultra-marathon where players could play up to 38 club games and nine or more international games in a season. The strategic planning that has empowered NFL’s continuous rise in domestic and global popularity proves that for financial success contact sports, like rugby, do not require ridiculously long and arduous seasons. The ‘quality not quantity’ message is not being heard in European rugby.

Global rugby has far too many matches across a confusing multitude of competitions. If the NFL are aware of rugby at all, they must shake their heads in disbelief, not only because we don’t use pads and helmets but because our seasons are endurance events. A long mismatch of club and international competitions that have no alignment or connection. Rugby’s playing programmes are exceptionally difficult to market to those not born into the game, extremely physically taxing on the players and with the exception of the men’s international 15-a-side game, are financially failing.

Andre Chacherof the Philadelphia Eagles tackles Amari Cooper of the Dallas Cowboys - the NFL is a cultural phenomenon. Photograph: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty

If you put those facts before any other sport in the world, their governing body would assemble a high powered research group and appoint an independent, experienced and respected leader from the business world to chair it. The group would be charged with creating a strategic plan to align the world’s leading club and international competitions, so that rugby can maximise its global market to create the financial success that would benefit all in the game, including the players and the grassroots.

Of course, all of that appears to be far too logical for rugby.

In 2020, when Agustin Pichot was running for the election of the chairman of World Rugby against Bill Beaumont, the creation of a globally aligned season was the major talking point of the campaign. Since Pichot lost that election to Beaumont (from England) and Bernard Laporte (from France) became his deputy chairman, meaningful discussion on an aligned global season has all but disappeared.

The French Top14 and the English Premiership clubs have a powerful political hold over World Rugby's decision making

Covid is not totally to blame for the disconnected season we are experiencing.

The cutting of the number of Champions Cup pool fixtures and the month long break in the United Rugby Championship, plus most other ridiculous scheduling around the globe (such as having June internationals that force the southern Hemisphere teams to interrupt their domestic Super Rugby season for incoming northern tours) are all due to the refusal of the French and English clubs to reform their season and competitions for the good of the global game.

Powerful hold

The French Top14 and the English Premiership clubs have a powerful political hold over World Rugby’s decision making that frustrates any attempts at reforming the global calendar

As the NFL’s Wildcard Weekend commences and billions of dollars of cash roll into American Football with hundreds of millions of viewers around the globe tuning in, we should remember that the NFL and rugby union have evolved from the same starting point. Decades of strategic planning and decision making by American Football’s governing body, the NFL, have produced a contact sport that is both a domestic and global colossus.

Despite the coming of professionalism to rugby 25 years ago, the game’s playing schedule remains a disconnected patchwork of long local club competitions that hinder the only financially viable aspect of the game, which are the men’s international matches.

South African franchises like the Bulls now have their season aligned with the northern hemisphere. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Logic suggests that rugby needs to maximise the men’s internationals fixtures and decrease the revenue draining from the long and arduous club competitions. But this is rugby and we know from the past that logic is not always the driving force behind rugby’s political class.

In almost every metric that we can measure, including income streams, wages and the growth of participation in the 15-a-side game, rugby remains far behind most other professional team sports because of the dearth of political will to empower global strategic planning and reform.

World Rugby needs to lead the global game into a future that is not directed and determined solely by the wishes of the English and French clubs.