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English rugby’s capacity crisis: Delving into the data

English rugby has a problem, but this is nothing new. The top two tiers of domestic rugby have seen four clubs go bust within the last two seasons, with the reigning Championship winners Jersey Reds the most recent club to liquidate.

With the country’s top tier now reduced to 10 teams, there have been discussions and proposals to change the format of the rugby pyramid completely. Most recently, there was a proposition for a ‘Premiership 1 and 2’ by the Rugby Football Union, but this was quashed by Championship clubs when put to a vote towards the end of 2023.

Whilst there are a multitude of issues to contend with, one of the larger obstacles that Championship clubs have encountered as of the previous few seasons is the minimum capacity requirements to enter the Premiership.

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As it stands, there is a minimum stadium capacity requirement of 5000 in order for Championship clubs to be eligible for promotion. They must also have planning permission and proof of funding to expand their capacity to 10,001 the following campaign, or they will face relegation.

Previously the minimum capacity standard had been 10,001, but this was revised in 2022 to allow clubs a better chance at promotion. This came after Ealing Trailfinders won the Championship in 2021-22 but were denied access to the top tier.

Trailfinders had agreed a ground share with Saracens at the StoneX stadium in 2021, which would have deemed them eligible, but were rejected as Premiership Rugby stated that they had missed the deadline.

There is a question to be asked however as to whether these requirements are sustainably achievable even at their reduced minimum standards. In the 2023-24 season so far, only two clubs, Bedford Blues and Coventry, have had a singular attendance of 5000 or above.

These two clubs also have the highest average of fans attending per week, averaging 3208 and 3450 respectively. However, the remaining nine clubs in the Championship all average under 2000 fans in home attendance so far this season, with the league averaging an attendance of 1557 across all matches.

The Sports Gazette spoke to Jonathan Beardmore from the Eggchasers rugby podcast for his thoughts on the Premiership’s minimum capacity rule.

“I think the evidence is fairly well-formed on this, which is, if you build your facility first and foremost, people will come. Investment in infrastructure is really important, but not so important that it should override the game,” Beardmore said.

“Look at Worcester Warriors and Wasps, they had really good infrastructure, but in the end their infrastructure was so good that the clubs became valuable for things other than rugby.

“This is a real danger, no one was really interested in Worcester, the owner was interested in the car park and other investment opportunities.”

In breaking news today, it was announced that Doncaster Knights had met the minimum standard criteria required for promotion for the second time in three years. The club so far this season have an average attendance of only 37% out of the current capacity of 5183.

An important fact to note from today’s press release is that the Knights were the only club in the league to put themselves up for audit this year, and are once again the only club that can get promoted. The league’s top three sides currently did not wish to entertain an audit.

Regardless, Doncaster find themselves 14 points behind top of the table Ealing Trailfinders, who are also 10 points clear of any other side. Trailfinders themselves average 20% of their 5000 capacity, and will once again find themselves barred from promotion should they reach that stage. Fellow promotion chasers Cornish Pirates average just 38% of their 4000 capacity stadium also.

Beardmore believes that promotion and relegation between the two leagues isn’t necessarily in the best interests of the domestic game right now, however.

“Relegation and promotion is very good to keep uneven leagues interesting. However, we don’t have an uneven league in the top tier, we have one terrible team in Newcastle and nine competitive teams elsewhere,” he said.

CityA.M recently reported that Premiership attendances are down by over 1000 per match this season compared to last,  averaging 11,290 through its first eight rounds, also appearing to need some form of rejuvenation.

However, the most recent proposition of the ‘Premiership 1’ and ‘Premiership 2’ was not an idea that Beardmore approved of.

“Who wants to watch the second tier of a closed league? I think the answer is nobody. The safest bet would be to continue with a closed league and invite clubs up when they can prove they are sustainable,” he said.

The future of the Championship is at a crossroads, as is English rugby in general. Ex-England international Brian Moore shared his thoughts on the future of the league and its clubs with the Sports Gazette’s Maul from Grace rugby podcast.

Brian Moore on the Maul from Grace podcast/ St Mary’s University, Twickenham

“Something drastic needs to be done. If I were to do this, I would look at a draft system, or at least a system where Championship clubs were allied to universities or some form of higher education,” Moore said.

“Like in American baseball, you could have a proper pathway where there are feeder clubs, and the system is there. Unfortunately, that would lead to clubs like my old side Nottingham ending up as a feeder club, but you tell me the alternative.

“You cannot keep just asking for cash, as if you are suddenly going to transform yourself into businesses that are providing their own players and providing the setup.

“If you could, why hasn’t it been done already? Because it is simply not tenable.”

Whilst both Beardmore and Moore offer up alternatives that are somewhat drastic, and perhaps not in the favour of Championship clubs right now, the long-term sustainability of the domestic game is something that must be maintained.

Whether it be the Premiership lowering their criteria demands to make promotion more attainable, or a complete revamp of the top two tiers, one thing is clear. Change is required.

Premiership Rugby declined to comment.


  • Ricky Westaby

    Ricky Westaby is the American Football editor for the Sports Gazette. Originally inspired by the Blind Side’s ‘true story’ to get into American Football, learning its dark truths was a crushing reality. However, the passion was already instilled. A QPR fan born and raised in West London, his other main areas of focus will include football and rugby union. @RWestaby_SG