The Salary Cap Debate: Increase, Maintain or Abolish?

The envy of other sports? The linchpin which makes the competition competitive? Or a hindrance which is forcing investors and players to turn their back on Super League? Since its introduction in 1999, the salary cap in Super League has ensured that each club has not overspent on their first team squad, with the maximum amount a team can spend on player’s wages currently standing at £1.8m a year.

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However recent opposition to the cap, unsurprisingly being led by Salford Red Devils Chairman Marwan Koukash, has raised the question about the future of the salary cap and what is the best action to take. Should clubs be allowed to introduce a ‘marquee player’ into their sides- a player whose wage only contributes a certain value towards a club’s salary cap, even if his actual wage represents more? Do we simply maintain the same principles but increase the cap year on year? Or is it time we scrapped the salary cap altogether and allowed clubs the freedom to spend?

The salary cap was introduced to obtain two key principles: a competition where each team has a realistic chance of winning, and to provide financial stability to all clubs. For the latter, the cap has made little difference, with Super League sides such as Bradford, London and Wakefield all going through financial difficulties whilst not being allowed to overspend by the cap. When the clubs were up for sale, you wonder how lucrative the offer of owning a Super League club was to potential buyers, i.e. pay off the debt and then your outgoings are restricted. Perhaps we need to look at Rugby League as a business more often and if owners are looking to bring more money in to the game, why should we stop them?

An obvious consequence of that would be the widening of the gap between the top and bottom sides, and on a wider scale a further gap between Super League and Championship sides- a negative move with the reintroduction of promotion and relegation. The wage bill for a Championship club is capped at £1m incidentally, which will surely be a disadvantage for the sides looking to compete against Super League sides under the new league structure from 2015.

The Wigan side of the 1990s is a good example of why club’s shouldn’t be allowed financial freedom, and was itself a factor for the salary cap’s introduction. The team were undoubtedly the best in the league, winning at least one trophy every season from 1985-99. Wigan’s wage bill topped £2m from 1994 onwards, with the club recruiting the best players in the competition.

Fairness across the league is what the salary cap strives for, with each team capable of success. Whilst only 6 teams have competed in a grand final, the competitiveness of Super League, where any team is capable of beating another, is one of the competition’s biggest attractions. A glance at the current standings shows that with 7 rounds to go, any team from 1st to 6th is still capable of finishing top- how many leagues across the world in any sport can boast that? Would the Super League be this competitive if we abolished the salary cap or increased it so much that we had the same 3 or 4 sides winning the competition every season?

Whilst Wigan won the Grand Final and Challenge Cup last year, the salary cap meant that the financial gain from success in those competitions didn’t necessarily give them an advantage over other teams going into this season. Compare this to the English Premier League in Football, where the money won from a Premier League title or Champions League football significantly widens the gap between the big teams and everyone below, with the same teams winning silverware every year.

Most people seem to be in agreement that the salary cap should not be abolished, but a review into an increase in the cap should be looked into. Super League’s finances are restricted by quite a sum compared to clubs competing in the NRL or Premiership sides in Rugby Union, and then we wonder why we lose our best players to these competitions. NRL sides can spend A$6.3m (£3.5m) on their wage bill, with a clear cap structure for the next 3 seasons set out with this increasing to A$7m (£3.8m) in 2017. They’re even debating in Australia to impose salary cap restrictions on coaches and backroom staff, whilst in the UK we can’t even agree on a cap for first team squads.

Likewise, Arriva Premiership sides in Rugby Union can spend up to £5m on their wage bill, with the attraction of switching codes never being so great.

If we want to keep our top players in the Super League and attract top international players from abroad, the salary cap should surely be increased from the current £1.8m to accommodate this.

An alternative, which Salford Chairman Marwan Koukash has been keen on the RFL to introduce, is the concept of a marquee player, a strategy that has worked well in the NRL and Rugby Union. The marquee player would be the club’s biggest payed, stand out player, attracting interest and with the hope of increasing attendances. This would hopefully keep our star players and also attract some of the world’s best. Under this ruling, Salford would not have had to have offloaded Tim Smith and Shannon McPherson in order to bring Kevin Locke in.

However, the move could cause unrest at some clubs where an individual would carry the label ‘marquee player’ and the need to live up to their price tag and excessive wage. There’s also a fear that if Super League attracted the biggest names in the world there would be calls to increase the number of oversees players which could prevent more English youngsters from breaking through.

10 Super League clubs voted last week to defer the debate to once the new league structure has bedded in, which will give clubs a better idea of how their finances fare under the new format. The debate cannot be taken lightly, and few would disagree that some sort of reform for the salary cap is needed. The worst thing the RFL could do now is stand still. 

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About apleah

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