AS HE raged against the machine in a 40-minute-long press conference on Thursday, Salford Red Devils owner Marwan Koukash left no-one in any doubt what his opinion on the Super League salary cap is.
The conference at the AJ Bell Stadium came in the wake of the Red Devils being charged with alleged salary cap breaches in 2014 and 2015 by The RFL just under a week prior.
Koukash, the millionaire racehorse owner, has long been a proponent of axing the salary cap altogether and has had several run-ins with the game’s governing body, and launched a stinging rebuke of how the cap is overseen by those at Red Hall.
“If The RFL believe they can police the salary cap they’re kidding themselves,” Koukash said.
“It’s fully reliant on owners and clubs to cooperate and stick to it, but one of the main reasons for the salary cap is to ensure there’s a level playing field.
“Can anyone tell me why we still have the same top four? Are they more creative or can they manage their cap better than the rest of us?
“That’s a question for The RFL to answer, not me.”
Koukash is hardly the first person to question to cap’s purpose. Maurice Lindsay, during his second spell as Wigan Warriors chairman, suggested getting rid of it not long after its introduction and more recently Kevin Sinfield – who studied the effect of the cap as part of his sports business Masters degree – has called for it to at least be increased.
Despite the dissenting voices, The RFL maintains Super League’s clubs are broadly in favour of not only keeping the cap but also retaining it at its current level. Indeed, it is worth remembering it took several attempts before the marquee player ruling was eventually approved in 2015.
“The clubs were unanimous that there are is no reason to change the salary cap,” Super League general manager Blake Solly told The Guardian last week.
“The marquee player ruling, which was introduced last year, was a good move and a step forward and something for Super League clubs to utilise rather than increase the cap.
“Everyone has worked hard to create sustainable clubs and increasing the cap goes against that.”
So if the other 11 Super League clubs are happy with the salary cap arrangements, does that mean it is working? Or is Dr Koukash right and it is simply unfit for purpose?
THE salary cap has four functions, as defined by The RFL’s Operational Rules. They are:
– “To protect the integrity of the Super League competition by ensuring that the determinative factor in the sporting outcome is on-field sporting merit and not off-field financial considerations.”
– “To ensure that the Super League competition remains competitive and therefore attractive to spectators and commercial partners by preventing Clubs with greater financial resources dominating the competition and by ensuring a balanced spread of Players among the participating clubs.”
– “To protect and nurture a broad competitive playing structure by preventing Clubs trading beyond their means and/or entering into damaging and unsustainable financial arrangements.”
– “To protect the welfare and interests of all Players participating in the Super League competition and of all those aspiring to participate in the Super League competition.”
It was introduced in 1999, although one of the main bones of contention is that it has barely risen since then to its current level of £1.825million, or no more than 50 per cent of Club Relevant Income.
There is, of course, the exception of the ‘marquee player’, which allows clubs to have one of their squad outside of the salary cap – a rule which Dr Koukash was instrumental in helping to drive through.
By contrast, the cap in Australia’s National Rugby League has been raised from £1.7million to around £3.6million.
Meanwhile, the cap in rugby union’s Aviva Premiership stands at £4.76million having been increased from £1.2million seven years ago, along with clubs receiving credits for England internationals and academy players, plus a ‘marquee player’ exception.
The fact the NRL and English top-flight rugby union clubs have greater spending power under their respective caps to lure players away has long been used as an argument to increase the spending power of Super League teams.
But if the clubs are happy with the current arrangements, the question has to be asked as to how many of them are actually spending up to the current limit – or indeed capable of it without placing themselves in financial peril?
Despite this, insolvency events are not uncommon as Bradford Bulls, Wakefield Trinity Wildcats and Celtic Crusaders have all entered administration while in Super League since the cap’s introduction – the latter of those eventually being liquidated.
Fortunately, most of the other clubs have managed to steer clear of these problems – some, such as Halifax and Widnes Vikings, have experienced problems following their relegation from the top flight – in spite of the precarious financial nature of running a professional rugby league club.
Perhaps then, and despite what the dissenters insist, the clubs recognise they need some sort of financial regulation from the governing body – if only to save them from themselves more than anything else.
ONE of the arguments which is often proffered in favour of a salary cap in any sport is that it helps restore the competitive balance in a league, with America’s National Football League often held up as the shining example.
However, the myth of parity on the field in the NFL has been debunked countless times in recent years, with New York Times columnist Gregg Easterbrook among those to write about it.
On the surface, it would seem Dr Koukash is right about Super League not being competitive, with only four clubs having won the competition in its 20-year existence and Leeds Rhinos being the dominant force of the last decade after being crowned champions six times in 10 years.
A 2008 study by Manchester Business School’s Andrew Howarth and T.A. Robinson, published in the International Journal of Business and Management, sheds more light on the subject though.
Their research showed that in the 20 years leading up to the formation of Super League, there had only been ten clubs to win the old RFL Championship, with Wigan becoming the dominant force in the late 1980s and early-to-mid-1990s.
Rather than just focussing on the so-called ‘Big Four’ – considered to be Bradford, Leeds, Wigan and St Helens at the time of the study’s publication – Howarth and Robinson looked at the make-up of the top five and concluded the cap had narrowed the gap and made Super League closer, if not ensuring the hegemony of the top sides had been completely broken.
Since the study, Warrington Wolves – twice Grand Final runners-up and winners of the 2011 League Leader’s Shield – have replaced Bradford in the ‘Big Four’, while the likes of Huddersfield Giants and Castleford Tigers have emerged as potential contenders, with the former topping the regular season standings three years ago.
The previous formats of the play-offs also heavily favoured the top sides, so it should be no surprise it was regularly the same sides facing off against each other in the Grand Final. Indeed, only Hull FC in 2005 and the aforementioned Wolves have managed to get down to the deciding game aside from the perennial contenders.
Plus, as Easterbrook noted about the NFL in his column, some teams are just smarter in their recruitment of players and personnel. Few would argue Salford, with their regular changes of head coaches and vast annual turnover of players, have repeatedly failed in this regard.
SO, where does this leave the salary cap and what does it mean for its future? Despite the dissenting voices, it does not look like there will be any adjustments any time soon or that there is the collective will to make changes.
To suggest the cap should be done away with completely is at best reckless short-termism and at worst comes across as simply being motivated by self-interest. The fact is the majority clubs are simply not in the position to go out and spend more than they are currently, even with increases in television contracts.
That is not to say the cap should not be tweaked or even raised. Yet any changes must be done alongside ensuring that Super League, and rugby league in general, remains a viable professional product for all concerned.