Premiership Rugby has drawn up contingency plans with the competition unlikely to be given the all-clear to resume until the middle of summer at the earliest, and then probably behind closed doors. It has suspended fixtures until 24 April but that date is set to be extended this week.
The clubs are looking at a number of models with the priority getting the sport back on television amid fears that its broadcasters BT, who have had to offer subscription freezes to viewers to compensate for a lack of live action, will seek a rebate that will hit organisations that are already struggling with income reduced to a trickle.
One plan is to finish the current season with a couple of special play-off weekends in August at a big ground such as Twickenham to decide the champions before starting a new campaign. The downside is that the bulk of the clubs would not be involved, even if they would benefit financially and it would suit BT who would need to prepare only one stadium for live broadcasting.
Another is to organise a one-off cup competition that would involve all 12 clubs and give BT live action given the broadcaster would lose 11 weekends of matches – almost half the season – if the current campaign were abandoned with nothing replacing it. It would last for a month and finish just before the start of the new season, although they are also prepared to delay the start of the 2020-21 campaign.
With the government’s medical advisers talking about the rules restricting social gathering lasting at least another three months, players are unlikely to be able to return to training until July and would need a pre-season before playing competitively.
The uncertainty over timing is making planning difficult, and the need to look after BT is why Premiership Rugby is reluctant to end the current season, but each week of the lockdown presents more difficulties for clubs whose income has all built dried up, forcing them to cut wages and put some players and staff on furlough.
“We have all known for a long time that all sport, football in particular and rugby to a lesser degree, is not a perfect model,” the Bristol owner, Steve Lansdown, told Bristol Sport TV. “We pay quite high wages for players, we rely on supporters coming to watch us and buy our merchandise and we rely on television.
“When you suddenly cannot put on a game any more, cannot open your shop and have nothing live to put on the television, there is no reason for people to pay you. We have had no income coming in since the beginning of March and that shows the weakness of our model: in every other business I am involved with you have a recurring income, even if it may go down because of difficult trading circumstances.
“We need to get our heads together now and take this opportunity to review everything we do.”
World Rugby is looking at contingency options with the July tours increasingly unlikely to go ahead. September may become an international month as the governing body says that Test rugby will take priority.