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  • Danny Harrington

Saudi Investment in Rugby Union: A Path to a Breakaway League?

Updated: Feb 6

If recent reports are to be believed, then Rugby Union is about to get a whole lot of financial muscle in the form of Saudi investment.

According to an article from Charles Richardson in the Telegraph, Gloucester, Newcastle, Northampton and Leicester could all be getting some sweet oil money.

To me, this make no sense, sports washing aside there is no money in Rugby Union, it’s a sport on its knees with three clubs hitting the wall last season, London Irish, Worcester Warriors and Wasps Rugby.

So why would the Saudi’s get involved in a sport struggling to make ends meet by investing in clubs that don’t make large profits. Yes, I know the Saudis don’t need to make profits on their sports assets as it’s more about promoting Saudi Arabia as a nation. But I’m going to propose something that could make the Saudi state money and have the sort of impact they’re looking for; the Saudi’s need to buy the league!

If we look to Rugby League as an example with IMG (International Management Group) this partnership is to streamline the League version of Rugby and have the biggest clubs in its topflight the Super League which is designed to secure the financial future of the sport.

Rugby Union needs what English football had in 1992, a breakaway league. If it’s going to compete with France to have best club rugby union league in the world they need backers, they need the Saudis.

If all ten Premiership clubs withdrew from the RFU system and went their separate ways they would have a much better chance of getting more television revenue, increased sponsorship and more money for the individual club. This sort of thing has been proposed before but the difference here is guaranteed revenue in the form of Saudi backing, think of it as the LIV Golf of English rugby union.

For it to work it would sell its TV much like the Premier League with different packages to different broadcasters but also would need an expansion of clubs because ten is not enough. This league would have to resurrect London Irish, Worcester Warriors and Wasps (which seems to be happening anyway). It would also be proficient to add marketable clubs from the lower levels of English rugby say a Bedford Blues or Plymouth Albion (Just of the Exeter rivalry). The league would have to suspended promotion relegation at least for the first couple of seasons. Long term the league would need at a minimum sixteen teams and would need a salary cap to sustain profitability throughout its team thus securing the long-term future.

However, this needs to be kickstarted by someone with money and that’s where the Saudi’s could have a positive impact on the game of rugby and create sustainability as a commercial rights holder much like in Formula 1 with Liberty Media, because it’s clear that rugby union is undervalued by those that are it’s custodians whether it’s the RFU or Premiership clubs themselves.


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