With Andy Robinson’s sacking earlier this month, another newly-promoted Aviva Premiership team appears to be spiraling out of control, heading for the trap door that that they were propelled upwards through at the climax of the previous season. For Bristol, their 2016-17 season has been nothing short of catastrophic; they have picked up only two points in seven Premiership matches (with thirty-five on offer). Those solitary two have been losing bonus points for being within seven points or less and they currently have a points scored/conceded deficit of one hundred and fifty eight in the league! They’ve also lost both of their games in the European Challenge Cup so far and although Mark Tainton achieved in first with Friday night’s victory of Sale Sharks in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, the outlook still appears bleak for the Bristolians.
Bristol’s plight raises interesting questions as to the significance of relegation and promotion in professional sport in Britain. In Rugby Union, since the 2003-04 season, four teams (not including the likelihood of Bristol’s relegation) have been promoted to the league and suffered relegation that season [this unwanted honour going to Rotherham, Leeds (now Yorkshire Carnegie) and London Welsh, twice]. Although no clear pattern emerges, if Bristol were to return to the Championship as they appear likely to, they would be the third team to suffer that fate in five seasons, as opposed to the two teams who suffered that fate in the eight seasons between 2003-04 and 2010-11. So what’s changed?
Money and scheduling are the clear culprits. With the consistent rise in the Premiership salary cap allowed by the RFU, teams in the Championship have struggled to adapt having been promoted to the Premiership, often bringing with them players of a comfortable Championship standard who only command Championship wages. Putting Danny Cipriani, Billy Vunipola and Taulupe Faletau against Charlie Amesbury, James Phillips and Kyle Traynor is equivalent to a U-Boat ramming a seal, it’s virtually asymmetrical warfare. On top of this is the daft Championship scheduling that the RFU remains reluctant to reconsider; For at the end of each Championship season, the four top teams enter the playoffs, extending the season, often by over a month. By this point (i.e. late-May), the established Premiership teams are already well into their recruitment cycle for the following season, having been able to virtually guarantee new recruits the luxury of Premiership rugby in March.
The Football Angle
Whilst promoted teams to the Aviva Premiership teams increasingly fall at the first hurdle, the opposite appears to be occurring in Britain’s largest sporting showcase – the Premier League. Over the same time frame (from the 2003-04 season to 2015-16 season), fifteen teams out of a possible thirty-six have been relegated having been promoted that season (41%). The anomaly year is 2011-12, where QPR, Norwich and Swansea all survived their first year in the top flight, with Bolton, Blackburn and Wolverhampton losing their Premier League status. What is noticeable though is that only five of those thirty-six teams have been relegated in the last five seasons (out of a possible 15, 33%), the other ten coming in the space of the previous seven seasons (out of a possible 21, 47%). Why is this occurring?
Money again has a major part to play, particularly in view of the greater plurality of wealth in the English football pyramid in 2016 than in 2006, as does the greater complacency of established ‘premier league’ teams. Newcastle, Aston Villa, Bolton and Blackburn all fell foul of the belief that they were too big to fail and thus tragically conspired towards their own relegation. These teams all saw a slow deterioration over a number of seasons that culminated in the erosion of team skill and saw the offloading of key players (Mathieu Debuchy, Christian Benteke, Kevin Nolan) to be replaced by those with lesser skill or commitment. Championship teams have leapt upon this vacuum as traditionally secure Premier League teams have underestimated the inflationary figures that have accompanied the influx of foreign billions into the league. At this point, the pendulum turns in favour of the hard working underdogs (i.e. Bournemouth) and against the expensively assembled individuals (i.e. Newcastle).
Parachute payments also fall into the equation. After being introduced in the early 2000s, these constituted inflating payments (£6.6 million in 2004-05, £7.5 million in 2006-07) given to relegated teams. Up until the end of the 2009-10 season, this took the form of two payments over two years totaling £16 million. This was aimed to prevent clubs from crashing and burning, having acquired large debts in the Premier League which dragged the club down the football pyramid subsequently, often several rungs (see Portsmouth, Charlton and Leeds). For the 2010/11 season, new rules were introduced with relegated clubs receiving £48 million over a period of four years. It is no coincidence we have seen fewer teams being relegated at the first opportunity since. Some teams have of course fallen through the cracks, Wigan appear unlikely to regain their Premier League status any time soon, but for Newcastle, Norwich and Reading there appears hope.
So why the differing trajectories. For Rugby, the introduction of proper money in the Premiership without the introduction of adequate parachute payments or equivalent has widened the chasm between the top two leagues managed by the RFU, thus making it more likely teams will be relegated having just gained promotion. In Football, the inverse is apparent, the money has increased in the game, but it has been more evenly spread across the two top leagues, allowing teams like Bournemouth, Watford and Leicester to gain a foothold, West Brom and West Ham to cease their yo-yoing of the late 2000s/early 2010s and ensured relegation for previously comfortable teams who failed to foresee the shifting financial forecast.