Saracens’ attempt to end the 15-year-old salary cap in the Premiership at a meeting of shareholders next February looks set to fail, not least because any vote in favour would need a 75% majority.
Saracens have long lobbied for an end to the cap and, even though it will go up to £5.5m next season, with clubs able to spend an unlimited amount on top of that on two marquee players, they maintain its continued presence will be a hindrance to the growth of English clubs at a time when their French rivals are spending freely.
“We must release the handbrake and step on the accelerator,” said Edward Griffiths, Saracens’ chief executive. “It would be a pity if the world’s top players light up the World Cup on English soil and then leave to play club rugby in France. If the salary cap is left to forbid the required investment, it will kill any hope of growth.”
Griffiths said Saracens had the support of six other Premiership clubs, two short of the eight they would need to get rid of the cap, but none of those consulted by the Guardian on Friday would publicly back the move. Bath and Northampton were on the fence, while Exeter, Gloucester, Harlequins and Wasps were in favour of keeping the salary cap beyond next season.
“We are happy to debate the cap but it should be done behind closed doors,” said Stephen Vaughan, the Gloucester chief executive. “As far as we are concerned, it works. It allows clubs to be self-sustainable and chase for silverware, as Northampton are showing. A number of things are going well for the Premiership and abolishing the cap would create a fundamental threat of them going wrong.
“You do not want to get into a position where clubs feel they have to live beyond their means to compete with one or two others. I do not want to see the Premiership become like the Premier League, where Manchester City and Chelsea are able to buy success through billionaire owners. We have to make sure that as a league we operate to the rule, not the exceptions.
“The cap has helped create the most competitive league in the world and we should not jeopardise that because one or two clubs in France are turning into the Read Madrid and Barcelona of old and signing galácticos galore. No one is saying the cap is perfect, but it works.”
Harlequins agreed. Their chief executive, Dave Ellis, said: “The comments regarding the abolition of the salary cap were somewhat surprising, given we have recently had discussions on this very topic as a league.
“The fundamentals of this regulation were approved recently at a shareholder meeting, so I can’t understand why the issue is being raised again. If there is a genuine desire to have a fresh discussion on the cap, then we are more than happy to have a debate as a league, but in the right way, in the right forum. As a club, Harlequins fully supports the salary cap: every game counts in the Aviva Premiership and that has been more than evident this season.”
Premiership Rugby issued a statement that, while neutral over what may happen in February’s meeting, pointed out how having the cap since 1999 had helped the Premiership clubs grow at a sustainable level. “It is a progressive system whereby the maximum spend is linked to revenue increases from TV and other centralised commercial rights,” the statement said. it said.
“The salary cap ensures the financial viability of the member clubs and underpins the sustainable growth of the competition for all stakeholders. It provides a level playing field for all clubs,ensures a competitive competition, promotes home-grown players and supports the performances of the England team and allows the promotion of elite players from other countries through the excluded players provision.”
The statement pointed out that salary caps existed in various sports throughout the world and noted that there had been a marked increase in financial regulation in European sport in recent years, exemplified by the introduction in football of financial fair play by Uefa, the Premier League and the Championship.
Saracens posted an operating loss of £5.9m in 2012-13. The year before that, the wages of players and staff accounted for 89% of the club’s turnover (compared with Leicester’s 41%), although the move to Allianz Park was expected to reduce that figure by adding £2m to the annual turnover.
Exeter will not be supporting Saracens. “We would support the cap being increasedt the statement said but not abolished,” said the club’s chief executive, Tony Rowe. Earlier this year, talking about spending and debt, he remarked: “It does seem a bit unfair that people can buy players and run sporting businesses as a tax loss.”