Welsh regions fear soccer resurgence

Wed, 01 May 2013 13:15
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We look at the contrasting fortunes of soccer and rugby in Wales, where the financial pinch is causing major problems,

Next season's English Premier League soccer competition will feature two Welsh clubs for the first time in the top flight's 125-year history, but the achievements of Swansea City and Cardiff City have sparked fears for the future of Rugby Union in the sport's south Wales heartland.

Everywhere you look in English football, Welsh clubs and players are making inroads.

Swansea are the League Cup champions. Cardiff are back in England's top division after a 51-year absence.

The Premier League's most lauded individual player, Gareth Bale, is a Welshman.

Further down the English football pyramid, Welsh clubs Newport County and Wrexham are preparing to contest the Conference National play-off Final for the right to join the ranks of England's 92 professional Football League clubs.

Even the much maligned national team are on the up, having leapt 22 places to 49th in the latest FIFA ranking.

But while the nation's football fans jubilate, Wales' cash-strapped rugby clubs are feeling the pinch.

Cardiff are expected to quadruple their revenue to around £80 million (US$124 million, €95 million) next season, as the Premier League clubs savour the first chunks of a new television deal worth more than £5 billion over three seasons.

In stark contrast, the city's professional rugby team, Cardiff Blues, must respect a £3.5 million salary cap.

With glamour teams like Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool due to visit the Cardiff City Stadium next season, the Bluebirds can also expect a spike in the number of fans attending their games, which could spell bad news for the Blues.

Rugby side the Ospreys reported a sharp decline in attendances when neighbours Swansea were promoted to the Premier League and the football team's gates already dwarf those of their rugby counterparts.

Cardiff City's average home crowd this season is close to 22,500, while the Blues attract an average of only 7,880 fans to each game.

Meanwhile, at the Liberty Stadium that Swansea share with the Ospreys, attendances fluctuate by up to 10,000 depending on whether the footballers or the rugby players are in town.

With the Premier League's superstar players now set to make twice as many visits to south Wales next season, former Wales rugby captain Mike Hall believes it will only get harder for the four regional rugby teams to compete.

"There's only so much money around in the economy, in south Wales especially," Hall told the BBC.

"When you decide to spend your pound, are you going to watch [Robin] van Persie, [Wayne] Rooney and [Frank] Lampard, or are you going to watch regional rugby in empty stadiums?"

Complicating matters for the rugby teams is the fact that a lack of funding has led to a steady exodus of leading Welsh players leaving the country in pursuit of bigger contracts elsewhere.

Wales wing George North is the most high-profile recent player to leave, having agreed to swap Scarlets for English Premiership side Northampton Saints on a three-year deal despite the best efforts of the Llanelli-based club to keep him.

North followed in the footsteps of international teammates Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate, who have both left Welsh clubs to play in France's lucrative Top 14 championship, where Wales trio Mike Phillips, James Hook and Luke Charteris already ply their trade.

The North case crystallised concerns about the financial health of Welsh rugby, prompting the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) to urge the regional clubs to sanction the introduction of central contracts in a bid to keep Wales' star players within the country's borders.

In the international arena, Wales continue to thrive, triumphing in the Six Nations and contributing 15 players to the British and Irish Lions squad for their tour of Australia in a month's time but at a regional level, football's gains may prove to be rugby's loss.

AFP

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