Sunday, 24 March 2013

Should Super League have a 'Designated player' rule?

The very enjoyable recent BBC 5Live Rugby League hour featuring Dr Marwan Koukash and apparently his fantasy line up of potential Salford recruits (Brian Noble and Adrian Morley) has highlighted and contributed to an ongoing issue for debate in Super League - that of the Salary Cap.

Koukash with his millions wants the cap increased. There are some reasonable arguments for doing just that, beyond the personal motives of Koukash wanting to spend more money on top players to lead his club to silverware.

The 2013 salary cap rules say that basically the top 25 earning players can't be paid more than a combined total of £1.65million (for full details, click here).

It's fair to say all clubs don't currently spend to the cap, but the ones that do are predominantly the ones at the top - although rumoured full cap spending at London in the past couple of years hasn't seen them compete. Results suggest Koukash's comments that those who can't afford to spend to the cap are already struggling to compete so it shouldn't matter if the cap were increased are reasonable, though not entirely convincing.

He's proposing an increase to £2.5 or £3 million, pushing it closer to that of the NRL (for 2013 this is A$4.4m \approx \!\, £3m), but leaving it way behind the RFU Premiership cap figure still (£4.26m for 2012-2013 season). It means that Super League would be able to retain more of its stars and have the potential to have some star pulling power to bring in some big name overseas players or exiles back from the other code. This should in theory attract media attention, fans and sponsorship to the game in the UK, putting it in the position it deserves to be in higher up the larger public consciousness.

An interesting sidestep to increasing the cap limit is the 'Designated player' rule (DP), nicknamed the Beckham rule, that has applied in Major League Soccer (MLS) since 2007 as a workaround to signing big names within salary cap constraints. This is what Adrian Morley suggested during the 5Live show.

This rule allows MLS clubs to sign up to three players whose salaries exceed their budget charges - a charge of US$368,750 for a DP on a US$2.95m cap that applies to top 20 earners. (I would note the RFU Premiership operates a similar rule called the Excluded Player rule, but as the player has to have recent international pedigree, they will likely miss a number of games in a season anyway). If Super League brought it in, such a rule could see top paid players cost maybe £250k a piece towards the cap and then paid what the teams want on top of that.

The MLS rules limit teams to two DPs and they can 'purchase' a third from the league, with the money paid being distributed around the clubs who don't have three DPs. If the rule is brought into Super League then I'd propose letting teams have up to two British DPs - the second dependent on evidencing affordability - and also the ability to 'purchase' one overseas DP. The reason for this is it would help keep homegrown talent in the sport rather than see them go to Union. Financially clubs would be allowed compete on wages for big name players with the NRL, so the league could still field some big names to draw fans but it means no one club could hog the talent available and injuries can still be that great leveller during a season.

The theoretical advantages of applying a salary cap are the promotion of greater competitive balance (i.e. equality) between teams as well as a control on costs to prevent overspending to achieve success at the cost of long term financial stability. Any such rule change if applied to the Super League would need to maintain the advantages of a cap rather than erode these - though the extent to which the current cap has been successful could be questioned, we have seen improving competitive balance particularly in the share of trophy wins and we were seeing a degree of stability and growth before the global economic crisis changed the way things worked financially.

Financially, the ability to hold on to or bring in higher profile players might well see attendances and viewing figures increase. There is certainly some credibility to the argument that audiences want to see star players. This would in turn see more money coming into the sport through TV deals, ticket sales and sponsorship deals, so as long as clubs don't bankrupt themselves to get DPs in the team then it should help with financial stability and growth. In the MLS, the league appears to have strengthened since the rule came in. More teams have entered the league and average attendances are up across the league - 15,378 for 2002-2006, 16,763 for 2007-2011.

In competition terms, the best thing to look at is how this has affected the MLS competitive balance since it's inception in 2007. In terms of win-percent ratios that show within season competition, so are a medium term measure (explained more on page 22 of this), in the five years before the DP rule was introduced the average figure was 0.991 and for the five seasons following the rule coming in it was 1.110. So win-percent ratios increased by 11%, meaning seasons were less competitive by this measure after the DP rule was introduced. However, it's fair to note that DP doesn't fully explain this change as another factor that must be considered is the league size increased every year - traditionally, new teams in a league are less competitive in their first years, so the addition of less competitive teams would make seasonal competitive balance weaker and probably have a greater influence than the DP rule, which if anything would allow new teams to bring in some star players (in 3 of the 5 seasons 2007-2012, the team with the worst record was a new team for that season). In terms of title winners, a longer run measure of competition that shouldn't be affected by weaker new teams, for 2002-2006 eight teams took top spot in the two conferences and for 2007-2011 seven teams made up the ten conference topping spots, though in terms of MLS Cup wins (equivalent of the Grand Final) there has been no difference between the two periods. So, a notable drop in medium term competition may be due to other factors and a very small reduction in long term competitive balance has been seen, but over such a small data sample this isn't significant enough to say the DP rule has had a negative effect on competitive balance in the MLS.

The two leagues obviously aren't like-for-like so a firm conclusion can't be drawn, but from what theory and evidence there is, the introduction of a Designated Player rule in Super League wouldn't be a bad idea and is certainly something the game's administrators should consider.

Whilst I'm on the subject of the Salary Cap, there are some other changes that I would like to see made to what we currently have in Super League, separate to the major change considered above. These in no particular order are:
  • Recognition for producing international players for the England team. Say, for every player that featured in the most recent end of season England squad, their club gets 10% of the player's salary added to their Salary Cap limit the following season. Maybe as well, alter it to include some benefit conveyed on the club that developed the player as a youth. Drawback would be that it doesn't really benefit long term planning as cap limit will change each year for the team.
  • Extend the benefits conveyed on long-term players. Currently, any player who has played for the same Club for at least ten consecutive seasons will have half their salary excluded from the Salary Cap for his eleventh and subsequent seasons, subject to a maximum of £50,000 for any one club. I'd increase the amount, say to £200,000 for ten year serving players, with the £50,000 limit applying for players giving five years service. Fans identify with one club players and whilst player movement shouldn't be restricted, clubs should be rewarded for long-term investment in players. As well as extending its value, I would restrict it only to players who made their first grade debut whilst registered at that club. This promotes attention to youth development as well as retaining players.
  • Special dispensation for injured players. I must admit, I don't know what actually exists in this area, but if nothing exists then something should. Where a player is injured for large periods of time in a season clubs should be able to remove his salary from their cap amount, whilst still paying the player his contracted salary compensation. This will allow them to temporarily sign a replacement to keep squad strength up. This would have to be regulated so that the injured player must miss a certain amount of the competition - say minimum 8 games - and is de-registered from playing for the amount of time set at the start of his injury period, and once that pre-set period expires he applies to the cap again. Maybe something like this already exists, and if so then fair enough.
  • Change the rules for players outside the top 25 earners. Currently in Super League, clubs can spend a maximum of £50,000 on players outside the Top 25 earners who have made at least one first grade appearance for the club during the year, though costs for players outside of the Top 25 earners, who do not make a first team appearance, will be unregulated. I feel this limits how many of your young players you can blood into first team games and hampers a club when the squad is stretched by injury. I would prefer something akin to what operates in the NRL, where a Salary Cap of $250,000 for the top 20 players who qualify for the under-20s competition and don't sit in a club’s top 25 earners, each club can spend an additional $50,000 on players outside the under-20s top 20 who qualify and play in the competition. The only benefit I can see to the Super League rules is teams can't stockpile all of the junior talent on the cusp of breaking into the top grade, but I think clubs should be encouraged to develop scouting systems and identify talent for themselves rather than poaching from other team's youth grades.
  • An alternative to the DP rule and increasing the cap level is reducing the number of players it applies to. Say keep it at £1.65m but this only applies to the top 17 earners, with a further cap to apply on the next 17 earners at £825k or something.
These are just suggestions that would need much more work on before being applied in practice, and the clubs would need to work harder themselves along with the RFL for higher wage spending to become affordable.


  1. Some good suggestions. Have you contacted anyone at the RFL to put them forward for discussion?

    David Robson

    1. Thanks for reading. I haven't formally contacted the RFL (I tweeted at them) but I would hope they have these things on their table for discussion already. If they don't, I wouldn't expect them to take a simple fan like me very seriously I'm afraid.