There’s been plenty of talk over the last few months of ending relegation in the Premiership, bolstered somewhat by the confirmation of CVC’s acquisition of a minority stake in the league. Whilst it’s easy to see the benefits for the 12 incumbent Premiership teams, you can also understand the concern for clubs currently residing in the Championship.
For me, a halt, even if temporary, to relegation from the Premiership makes total sense; but only if the league is extended. To date, talk of extending the league seems to have been limited to the concept of adding one additional team to the league, with the odd call for a 14 team league with a divisional style similar to that currently employed in the PRO14.
The reality though is that a 16 team Premiership makes total sense, especially from a longer term perspective. Before we even get into the idea, I’m going to make it clear that I’m not calling for a 16 team league that would result in a 30 game regular season, with time for playoffs and finals like in the current season. Frankly, the idea of adding more competitive games into an already congested season is absurd.
An extension to 16 teams actually provides the opportunity to reduce the number of games per season, making each considerably more meaningful. My suggestion is to employ a system of four conferences, each containing four teams grouped together based on geographical proximity. A team would therefore play each of the other three teams in their conference both home and away, and then play the other 12 teams in the league either home OR away (alternating each season). This would result in 18 regular season games (compared to the current 22), with the winner of each conference entering the playoff semi-finals in the current structure.
This is a system that has been employed across major sports leagues in the USA to great effect, most notably in the NFL. It helps breed even more intense rivalries within localities, whilst ensuring that each game is that bit more meaningful as teams have four less games in which to accumulate points. The key inter-divisional “derbies” can also be scheduled during key points in the season in order to boost attendances and wider viewing figures.
At this stage, I’m not advocating for a permanent ring fencing of the league, but a four year period during which the 16 teams in the new format are guaranteed their place in the league. At the end of this “amnesty”, it would be a case of either extending the league by another four teams (adding another conference or extending the current ones to 20), or re-introducing some kind of relegation/promotion format in order to give an incentive for Championship sides to remain competitive during the four year trial phase.
To me, there are two clear issues with this proposal. Firstly, which four sides from the Championship get to join the extended league format? Secondly, the four sides being promoted are likely to be at an immediate disadvantage given both financial and playing resource, which has always been the issue with new sides joining the Premiership.
The issue of which four sides get a chance to join the new league should come down to a simple application system. Any side that wishes to be considered for promotion must submit an application to Premiership rugby. The application would cover off a number of points including; location, league placing in recent seasons, facilities, average attendances, etc. Each area will be scored based on a points system, with the teams that are most likely to be competitive over a four year period granted access. Whilst it would obviously be much simpler to just choose the top four sides from the previous season, this is not necessarily a good indicator of long-term viability.
The second issue is addressed, at least in part, by the four year window applied to the league. This means every team that joins the league doesn’t have to make a notable impact in years one or two, but rather can focus on building a sustainable side over the first three years knowing they are safe from relegation to give them a solid chance of being competitive in their fourth season when there is a chance that relegation may be introduced.
One final issue to consider is what happens to the Championship? The league already suffers from poor attendance numbers and limited playing budgets, so frankly siphoning off the four most valuable sides in the league is hardly going to help that scenario. However, what if each Premiership side had to agree to include a developmental side in the Championship? This would replace the current A League which is a mess as is, and ensure there was significant interest in the revamped Championship as fans of the Premiership clubs would want to see their rising stars in competitive action, or returning stars getting a run out. This would obviously involve extending the Championship considerably, but we could apply the process of playing teams either home OR away alternating each year, rather than playing both home and away every season.
I’m sure there are a whole range of other potential pitfalls with this plan, but it at least provides a basis to work from that can be moulded and adapted to benefit sides in both the Premiership and Championship (there also needs to be consideration for those sides in the National Leagues).