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Seven months before the September start of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, rugby's commercial outlook remains clouded in disarray. The on-going conflict is mutli-faceted; clashes between northern and southern hemispheres, control dispute between World Rugby and some national unions, and internecine disagreements among the Six Nations participants.
And, it's all about the money. Or, more specifically, the prospect of making more money.
On one hand, World Rugby has promulgated a radical concept of a World League (Nations Championship), an annual eleven match, twelve-country competition of the Six Nations (Ireland, Wales, England, Italy, France, and Scotland), along with the Rugby Championship (New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Argentina), and the addition of Japan and the USA.
The first presentation proffered a 12-year tenure for the league without relegation and promotion.
Then the World Rugby idea hit the fan when the Pacific Island countries (Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa) cried foul over their exclusion. The New Zealand and Australian unions followed with serious complaints about the inclusion of the perennial Tier 2 USA as a competitive participant.
World Rugby backtracked immediately, significantly altering the concept to give up the 12-year time frame, and make the new league one-year with promotion and relegation conditions. World Rugby, as a second thought, also considered a second division of twelve nations.
But the major drawback, the push back, came from the Six Nations, which posited a firm "Nyet" to the relegation suggestion. Recall the Six Nations is a private entity that operates independently, a profitable organization, that amasses lucrative television revenues and attendance monies from full stadiums on game days.
(The relegation model has long been a staple of English professional soccer where the three lowest placed teams in the Premiership drop to the Championship, while the top three finishers in that second division are promoted the next year up to the Premiership. The same activity occurs up and down from the Championship to the First Division. This has always been judged a fair and reasonable method of rewarding professional clubs. Historically, the twenty current sides in the 2018/2019 Premiership indicate that eleven were in the top league in 1999, and eight teams in 1979. These outcomes demonstrate an evenhandedness of promotion possibilities for Championship-placed clubs to rise to elite status, and, the possibility from there of competing in the European clubs' annual tournaments.)
The Six Nations has eschewed the idea of relegation for traditional and commercial reasons. Specifically, there would be nothing for the League to gain by dropping Italy and promoting Georgia, the constant winner of the European Championship. Italy is a major sports nation, a recognizable sports brand in soccer football, basketball, with medalists in the Winter and Summer Olympics. Georgia is not. The Italy-Georgia controversy aside, what would happen if England finished last in the Six Nations? Did World Rugby perceive that if this event ever happened, even with a relegation parachute payment, international rugby, as it has been played for 132-years, would thrive with no English XV on the world's Test stage?
Six Nations does not need World Rugby. Judgmentally, it will never consent to relegation.
(Part II will examine the divergent commercial possibilities.)