August 25, 2016
The Pro12 has a number of issues both at the level of the league itself, but also within each of the Unions as well. For starters the competition is a very young one with a lot of teams that are participating in it being equally young. The Celtic League was first set up in 2001, but it wasn't until the competitions 3rd season that it developed into the format we now recognise. Compare that to the English league which has its roots back in the early 70s or the French league which has it's roots going back to 1892, over 100 years before the Celtic League was set-up. Rivalries have had far more time to develop and each competition had been the premier club competition in their respective countries for decades before the Heineken Cup ever came along. Most, if not all, rugby supporters in England and France grew up with their leagues. Very few in the Pro12 countries have.
At the same time there were huge changes to the Welsh sides that were submitted to compete in the league and in Europe. The Welsh Regions didn't exist in their current format until 2003, and even then they lost their 5th Region (Celtic Warriors) after only a year. This brought about a few changes to the structures of the remaining Regions. These Regions have continually struggled to win over the local rugby fans as well as they don't conform to recognised geographical boundaries.
In Scotland there were issues with the way in which the clubs were set-up. Initially there were 3 clubs which included Borders Reivers, but they were disbanded in 2007 in an effort by the SRU to cut costs. In 2006 Edinburgh had been sold to a private consortium only to be brought back under control of the Scottish Rugby Union a year later.
The Italians only came on board in 2010 and Aironi only lasted 2 seasons with Zebre taking their place in 2012. So it has only really been since 2012 that there has been any stability in the teams competing in the league. While most fans didn't grow up with the league there are even a large number who didn't even grow up with the team they now support.
In terms of a consistent competition with consistent membership the Pro12 hasn't been that for any length of time. And that hasn't helped to develop support for some of the teams in question nor has it helped to foster and develop rivalries outside some of the domestic ones, something every big competition needs. The Irish teams are in fact the only ones who have remained consistent throughout the last 15 years, and that is more by accident than by design as the provinces were pre-existing sides ready made for the professional era. While it has settled down significantly over the last 10 years, 10 years is still nowhere near enough time to develop a competition to rival the Aviva Premiership or the Top14.
Another area where the league suffers next to its European counterparts is money. TV deals in England and France have dwarfed the TV deals in the Pro12. This is in large part due to the above issue where the Pro12 simply hasn't developed the support and following required to demand large sponsorship and TV rights deals. However the fact that it is also spread out across 4 different countries, with 5 different languages used to deliver it to the audiences, who are in 4 different markets with no single provider and with the actual audience numbers being considerably smaller means it is going to be next to impossible to sell the competition for the same kind of money as the other 2 leagues. At least not to domestic audiences alone.
Finally the fact that so many players are missing for such large parts of the season due to international duty means that it is easy to get the impression that those who compete in the competition don't take it seriously themselves. This is a harsh judgement as there is simply no way to avoid losing these players at present. The Pro12 has proportionally more internationals due to the fact that it is a multi-national competition. Having the same number of players (or less) to feed 4 times as many international teams can't be ignored. But this also has the effect of making the league appear inferior due to the relatively large number of games with near second string sides. Unfortunately the demands on players are already very high. Asking them to play more games simply isn't an option.
So what can be done to address these issues? Ultimately the league needs to continue to evolve to ensure that it develops the following and the rivalries required. To do this it needs to address the issue of player availability and also make the league itself a more attractive package to those inside and outside the Pro12 countries. It simply cannot continue to match the format of the 2 big leagues because to make the money it needs it must expand into wider markets. To do this it must find ways to differentiate itself from the alternatives.
And over the last few days we've heard that they have been investigating the possibility of taking on an American franchise or two and using that as a springboard to expand into the US market. This is going hand in hand with a potential move to a conference system as opposed to a regular league system. While it is great to see the Pro12 actively thinking outside the box on how to tackle the issues they face there are logistical and competitive issues with this plan. An American side would be fairly weak, at least to begin with. And this would just compound the problem with how the league is viewed, i.e. the poor relation. Having games in a time zone hours behind the rest of the league may not be an issue in Super Rugby, but that's because there are so many more teams, playing at a higher level, across those time zones.
Here at RugbyWaffle we've been having a think about the various options available and have some ideas around what can be done. Bearing in mind we are looking to increase the proportion of games that the internationals partake in, increase the competitiveness within the competition, offer something different compared to the other leagues and ensure the product does not hugely impact the value for money for fans, sponsors or broadcasters.
To ensure that internationals play a larger proportion of games we must reduce the number of games. As it is internationals will play between 25 and 30 games per season, most of which will be the highest intensity games. So it simply isn't feasible to increase the number of games they play. However we need to be careful when looking at reducing games because if we reduce the games too much the value of the competition drops. Getting rid of the Italian teams is an option, but it won't make a significant difference to the competition really and will be very damaging to Italian rugby. If we can avoid doing that we really should. The only other way to really reduce the number of games is to introduce a conference system.
Conference systems in sports have a bit of a bad rep as they have tended to have a fairly complex and awkward structure. Teams would play everyone in their own conference and some of the teams in other conferences etc. It all becomes a chore to keep up with for casual fans in particular. While Super Rugby has managed to implement conferences very successfully there are easier ways of doing it.
What we would propose would be a competition with 2 conferences of 6 teams. Let's call it the Pro12 Championship. Each conference would have 2 Irish, 2 Welsh, 1 Scottish and 1 Italian team. They would each operate as separate leagues with home and away fixtures among all the teams within the same conference. Once those games are complete each team would play their equivalent in the other conference, 1st vs 1st, 2nd vs 2nd etc, home and away to determine final league standings. Having small conferences like this will increase the competitiveness of each game as even 1 poor result could have serious impacts on a sides final standing (and therefore their European qualification/seeding).
From here the competition would progress to knock-outs with quarter finals, semi finals, final and a 3rd place play-off. The 3rd place play-off would be played the same weekend as the final similar to the Challenge Cup and the Champions Cup which would make a weekend event of the last weekend in the season. The winner of that game would gain a superior seeding in Europe so there is something to fight for there. The final would rotate between capital cities with the RDS and Aviva being the venues in Ireland, Cardiff Arms and the Principality in Cardiff etc. Having quarter finals would also increase competitiveness as there will be more sides in the hunt for longer and those mid table teams would have more to fight for than they currently do.
All this would mean a total of 15 rounds in the competition. With internationals playing approximately 10-11 games in the league each season this would see them involved in proportionally more games. However it would see the competition losing 9 weekends, which is quite a lot. To address this a sub-competition could be set up. Lets call this the Pro12 Derbies. This competition would be split into 3 conferences. The first would be an all Irish conference, the second an all Welsh one and the last one would have both Scottish and both Italian teams in it. Each team plays those teams within their own conference home and away with trophies available for the winners. The final standings in these conferences would determine the Pro12 Championship conferences for the next season.
This would add another 6 weekends to the Pro12 calendar. The Pro12 Derbies games would be scheduled in and around the international windows and therefore wouldn't involve the internationals. It would take games that are often seen as the poorer games of the tournament and turn them into local derby games where a trophy and bragging rights are on the line. This would make these games more interesting to fans compared to the games generally seen during the international windows. It would also give the players just behind the internationals something more tangible to achieve. We're now up to 21 weekends, 3 less than we currently have.
Finally an option to follow national sides on their summer tours could be looked at. Lets call this the Pro12 International Series. Sending the Pro12 sides, minus their internationals, down to the Southern Hemisphere to play Super Rugby teams, also missing their internationals, would be something bold and very interesting. 3 games per club over the same 3 weeks that the national sides play would surely be of interest to fans and broadcasters in both hemispheres? Obviously some work would need to be done to find fixtures when national teams are not travelling to one of the SANZAR countries, but this could be managed. This is something no other competition does and between the move to a conference system and the International Series the Pro12 would be offering something very different in the Northern Hemisphere.
All of this would bring the total number of weeks that the Pro12 has broadcast-able games up to 24, the same as it currently has. With the clubs sides playing teams other than each other in the International Series it would also have the effect of increasing the actual number of matches that the Pro12 schedule from 135 to 152. There will, however, be a reduction in the number of guaranteed home games each side plays, dropping from 11 to 8 in the regular season.
To make this work the Pro12 would need to push the start date of the competition out to the last week in September, but this could be easily done given the reduction in the number of regular season Championship games. Doing this would ensure all players get a full break and pre-season from the end of June to the end of September, but it would also allow the whole squad to complete pre-season together rather than having players filter back in at different times which is what currently happens. This would streamline preparations for each season benefiting all the sides in the Pro12.
This to us seems to be the most logical way to increase the visibility of the international players in the competition while also making the most use of the Pro12s ties with the 4 Unions. With a smaller number of regular season games within the Pro12 Championship conferences each game becomes proportionally more important (meaning less dead rubbers) with greater scope to make the knock-outs on top of the European qualification opportunities. The international players will have a far greater say in the outcome of the competition than they currently do, underlining what is a great strength of the Pro12 (the number of Test level players) while the wider squads will have opportunities in the form of the Pro12 Derbies and the Pro12 International Series. And the Pro12 will have completely differentiated itself from the Aviva Premiership and the Top14 offering something completely different with the conferences and the International Series. All this while increasing the actual number of games that are scheduled.
So what do you think? Does this sound interesting? Is it workable? Or are there any other opportunities out there that you can think of?