When US presidents are sworn into office, they are often assessed on their first 100 days in charge. But less than 60 days into his new role as chief executive of Premiership Rugby, Simon Massie-Taylor is already judging himself against his own checklist of objectives.
“My purpose in my first 100 days is to be really clear about what our plan and strategy is,” Massie-Taylor told City A.M.
“We’ve come off a period of two years really where we’ve been slightly stuck because of Covid-19, essentially, and that’s been about survival.
“In spite of some of those operational and financial challenges, the league’s in a really good state. We’ve had broadcast numbers and attendances coming back after the Omicron issue over the Christmas break, which did affect some clubs, but we are back in business.
“My job now is to set a direction for the future. So you’re not just dealing with what’s in front of your face, but we’re now focusing on the long term and all the opportunities. My job over the next few weeks is to get that plan in place, get everyone bought in and get moving.”
In those first 60 days, Massie-Taylor has led Premiership Rugby into a deal with ITV to show five games this season, including the final, on free-to-air television. This week the organisation is going further, launching in-house streaming service PRTV Live on which fans can watch non-televised games on a pay-per-view basis.
“The ITV deal is about breadth and is about exposure throughout the season,” added Massie-Taylor, who was previously chief commercial and marketing officer at the Rugby Football Union (RFU). “We had the Super Bowl [this month] and we want to have rugby’s equivalent of that.
“Then you’ve got the depth with PRTV. That’s for the hardcore fans but I imagine that there will be a pickup for the casual fan who wants to dip in. We hope to get more reach – that is what this media strategy brings us.”
Private Equity in Premiership
Massie-Taylor has also set his sights on other commercial avenues. In Europe, the French Top14 have handed their logo rights to rugby’s equivalent of the wildly successful Fifa video games, while the United Rugby Championship (URC), which features teams from the other Home Nations, has bought into a fantasy participation game.
Premiership Rugby is stuck between the two but Massie-Taylor doesn’t hide his ambition for the modernisation of the English domestic game.
“I think we probably underperform in certain areas and make great strides in others. What is part of the plan, and what we have capital to do, is invest in our product,” he said.
“That’s what we’re working on in the background. It’s no good us just having a rugby game, you need to be able to align with other rugby rights holders and make it high quality.
“That’s the focus and we know that’s a big entry point for the younger fans. Fantasy and a few other things are the way that people are educating themselves about the game and understanding it a bit more.
“PRTV gives us an opportunity of having a direct transactional relationship with fans and so it grows from there.
“It’s all about making sure you’ve got the right products to attract people and want people to continue to engage in concepts around membership and loyalty and everything else.”
Recent events in New Zealand have underlined that private equity remains a prominent discussion within rugby union. This month firm Silver Lake bought a stake in the commercial rights of New Zealand Rugby, famous for the All Blacks, while closer to home CVC Capital Partners, former owners of Formula 1, have stakes in the Premiership as well as the Six Nations and the URC.
“CVC’s investment clearly came before Covid-19,” added Massie-Taylor, who was commercial chief at the British Olympic Association before moving into rugby.
“To some extent, some of the plans – the expansive plans that were always there – have been paused because of what’s been going on. That said, there’s still a huge amount of progress that’s gone on in various areas. In short, the investment will be very, very important to us.
“Their involvement is very positive, I think, within rugby. They’ve been incredibly supportive both in terms of Premiership Rugby as an organisation, but also the clubs.
“And they absolutely see the long-term value in rugby. They’re a good partner to have through this next phase.”
Competitive second division
Games, NFTs and brand deals may be important drivers of future growth but, in a bread and circuses world, sports bodies still need fans marching through the turnstiles and creating the fortresses others want to attend. In top-flight union that is mainly restricted to the South, with the outposts of Sale and Newcastle the only northern clubs, but this regional clustering isn’t of concern to Massie-Taylor.
“It would be nice if there were some more northern clubs in some of the rugby hotbeds,” he said.
“I’m sure we could be better regionally spread, but we’ve got a pretty good footprint at the moment.
“It’s really all about making sure that we’ve got Premiership-eligible clubs that can compete and be sustainable. That’s the priority, where they sit in the UK geographically comes after that really.”
The future of the Championship, English rugby’s second division, is a thorny issue, with reduced funding and minimal exposure making it harder than ever to bridge the gap to the Premiership.
The pandemic saw the top flight temporarily ring-fenced but Massie-Taylor insists that is not the long-term vision for a league that still acts as an important proving ground for many elite players.
“I think ideally a healthy second tier is important to any league and, to be clear, the concept of promotion and relegation in the long term is very much there,” Massie-Taylor added.
“There’s this more temporary moratorium over the next couple of seasons and indeed, we’re hoping and anticipating for a Championship club to come up this season. After you’ll get one up, one down again.
“So you naturally therefore need a competitive second league with teams that truly want to aspire to be in the Premiership and can afford to be there – and can build the crowd bases.”