‘Privilege membership’, ‘lack of respect to the union’, a £31m deficit – it has been a good week if you like watching rugby’s most historic institution, whose very birth established the sport on Earth, work itself into a lather over what it is and where it stands. The RFU these days is as PR-conscious as the next organisation, but every now and then the mask slips and we get a glimpse of 1871.
Throw in a name like Francis Baron and the effect is further enhanced. The man who, credit where it is due, turned the lumbering beast into quite the corporate machine over his 12 years as CEO has not, it seems, been sufficiently exercised by whatever it is he’s been doing since he left Twickenham in 2010.
The RFU don’t like the way he has been trawling through the accounts to highlight how badly Twickenham has been managing its books without him. They have rescinded his privilege membership, so Frankie B no longer qualifies for free tickets and lunches. Which means he should have even more time on his hands. Notwithstanding the revelation the RFU has a thing called ‘privilege membership’, most of us appreciate that rescinding Frankie’s was the right thing to do, but to try to justify it with that old chestnut about the RFU’s ‘core values’ of ‘respect’ and ‘teamwork’ undid all the good work at a stroke.
As for the £31m, that makes them look even worse, but we should look to the revenue when considering the health of a sports organisation. You would still rather be the RFU than any other union on Earth, all the more so now that the licence to print money that is the new East Stand is up and running. Even without it, income from their last financial year was £172m, not very good by their standards (hosting fewer games will do that to you) but still more than twice what most of the others would expect to take in a typical year.
Wales had a particularly good year, £97m revenue a significant uplift on usual (c£70m), while France flit between £105m and £90m, depending on the year. New Zealand had the Lions in 2017, which pushed them up to just over £133m, but they tend to come in at around £80m. Ireland were £75m for 2018. In other words, the RFU are mid-table Premier League (Everton/West Ham sort of level) and the rest are way adrift of Burnley.
The RFU has been cutting its cloth lately, fearful of Brexit and a fall in broadcasting revenue. Meanwhile, private equity are courting the Premiership, whose clubs’ combined revenue for 2017 was just shy of £200m, which means they reckon things are about to take off. They could both be right, which would have implications for anyone worried about the balance between the club and international games. Or they could just be different animals, one ballsy and brash, the other still mired in its talk of core values and privilege memberships.
Michael Aylwin’s novel about the future of sport, Ivon, is out now https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ivon-Michael-Aylwin/dp/1910453463