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Premiership Rugby should develop fan base to thrive, warns Northampton CEO


Tom James is tackled by Ben Youngs
Northampton were beaten at home by reigning champions Leicester last weekend

Northampton Saints chief executive Mark Darbon says the only way to safeguard the future of all Premiership clubs is to attract a larger fan base.

Darbon believes that to do so the fixtures calendar has to change to allow international players to make more domestic appearances.

All clubs are facing escalating costs because of the current energy crisis.

“It’s really difficult to attract more money into the game unless you can grow the audience,” he told BBC Look East.

“There are nine or 10 million people tune in to watch England at Twickenham in the Six Nations.

“How do we unlock that international audience and convert them to being passionate about Premiership rugby?”

He continued: “A lot of the conversations rightly at the moment are around ‘how do we grow the audience?’, ‘how do we get more people engaged and understanding of Premiership rugby?’, ‘how do we take some of those followers from the international game and bring them through the gates at Franklin’s Gardens and the other grounds?’ and ‘how do we then keep them, how do we deliver a product that people get passionate about, that they want more of, and that they come back time after time after time to engage with?'”

“If we can get those elements right, grow the audience, futureproof it, the rest takes care of itself because it’s much easier then to generate commercial income from sponsors, broadcasters and other partners.”

Darbon acknowledged that attendances at Franklin’s Gardens were slightly down on last season at the moment, due largely to the cost of living issues affecting fans and the club’s own gas bill is expected to rise by £100,000 over the course of a year.

“With the bounce back from Covid, we were one of only a couple of clubs across the Premiership to grow our attendances,” he said.

“We saw fantastic crowds here, particularly through the back end of the season. The start of this season has proved a little bit more challenging and when we talk to supporters, it’s undoubtedly the cost of living that is impacting that.”

Darbon was speaking just hours before Worcester Warriors were suspended from all competitions by the Rugby Football Union for failing to provide proof of funding and a plan for the debt-ridden club to move forward.

Wasps are in a similar predicament, owing money to HM Revenue and Customs and £35m in bonds which helped finance their move from Coventry to London in 2014.

While Worcester will go into administration following their suspension, Wasps had already outlined their intention to do the same.

“We want everyone to be thriving,” said Darbon. “We really hope Wasps and Worcester get through their current challenges.

“If we lost one or two teams it would certainly have an impact on us because we’re heavily reliant on matchday income and if you take one or two of those games away, it definitely has an impact on your revenue stream.

“There’s lots to think through in those circumstances, being very focused on the short term and the implications of any fall out from the issues those clubs have, (but) we also have to be mindful of the long term as well.

“We need to make sure we don’t do anything silly across the league in the short term that will impact on our ability to grow the proposition moving forward.”

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