Rugby_PlayerSports Shorts recently wrote about the England rugby Elite Player Squad’s (“EPS”) autumn training camp during which a number of injuries were picked up by players looking to cement their place in Eddie Jones’s (as yet still unbeaten) starting England XV.

The cost for those missing out on playing in these matches has been highlighted even further with the announcement of a new four year deal (2016 – 2020) for the EPS reached between the RFU and the Rugby Player’s Association (“RPA”). The new deal will cover match fees (a reported £22,000 per match), training fees, image rights and performance bonuses.

Whilst exact details are presently unknown reports suggest that an EPS member could earn up to £300,000 a year in match fees alone, add to this image-rights payments and performance bonuses for a Grand Slam (said to amount to £600,000 for the squad this year) or a World Cup win and it can be seen that an England player’s earnings could reach previously unknown levels. For example England player’s earned a £70,000 bonus for winning the World Cup in 2003 whereas they could now earn more than this for playing in all of England’s autumn international’s alone.

Damien Hopley, Chairman of the RPA, welcomed the deal and the fact that players would be benefitting from the commercial success of the RFU bolstered not least by last year’s hugely successful World Cup and a recent new TV broadcast deal for both the Premiership and European Rugby Cup. Hopley suggested that top players deserved to earn £1 million pounds per year.

Professional rugby players have long been considered second class citizens when it comes to wages in comparison to football with only the game’s megastars coming close to competing by virtue of lucrative commercial deals outside of their playing wages. The £1 million wage target for the EPS would still be low when compared to the salary for a Premiership football player where average wages are now said to equal £48,766 per week, or c. £2.5 million a year before bonuses and tax (albeit this in turn amounts to only a month of Gareth Bale’s new wages if recent reports are to be believed).

The big difference however comes when you look at those below the elite level of the game. An average Premiership rugby player can expect to earn around £75,000 to £100,000 per year whilst dropping down a level further to the Championship can see an average wage in the region of £20,000 to £25,000 which can reduce significantly if the player is injured. Outside of the Championship wages become more difficult to assess given few clubs are fully professional, instead paying some players and not others. Compare this to average football salaries in the English Football League where players in the Championship can expect to earn an average of £342,200 , League One £69,500 and League Two £40,300 and it is clear that rugby remains a long way behind the ‘beautiful game’.

Despite increased revenues from broadcast deals increased salaries for rugby players are unlikely to change dramatically given Premiership clubs are required to work within the current £6.5 million salary cap (rising to £7 million next season) imposed upon them and the limited funding provided by the RFU to clubs in lower leagues.

As can be seen from the success of the Premier League (average annual salary £77,000 in 1992), significantly increased salaries can result from dramatically increased broadcast deals which also aid the development of stadia which in turn increases match day attendance and revenue.

And therein lies one of rugby’s biggest problems. Whilst TV deals are following the trend of football, attendance at matches outside of the Premiership (average attendance 13,611) remains poor with average attendances in the Championship last year standing at 2,519. The RFU needs to encourage greater participation in the game to ensure the standard in the lower league rises, something that is unquestionably happening. Thereafter its needs to increase the following for more junior clubs so that they can improve attendance and in turn their grounds.

The question is how to do this? One answer may simply be to increase funding to more junior clubs so that the Premiership does not become a closed shop to club’s without well-developed grounds – which may in itself prevent a club from playing in the Premiership.

Another answer is to repeat the successes of 2003 and ensure that the elite level of the game is as successful as possible thereby encouraging young players to aspire to come through the ranks and play for England.

How best do you incentivise this? Money. Perhaps the RFU is on to something after all.