Mining salary data to help rugby clubs and unions make smarter signings

Hannah Bowe explains what her work in Esportif International’s Intelligence division involves.

SO MUCH HAS changed in rugby over the last three or four years, from players’ earning power to broadcasting agreements and even the structures within competitions, unions and clubs.

It’s no different for rugby agency.

Esportif International, one of the largest firms in the sport, has looked to move with the times.

Initially working mainly in the field of talent management – acting as representatives for players and coaches – Esportif has grown notably in recent years as they have drawn in agents from around the world and added new staff in a range of fields.

Director Ryan Constable – whose Cornerflag company merged with Esportif in 2014 – is the face of the organisation in Ireland, while former Ulster out-half Ian Humphreys is now a ‘player manager’ on these shores, where Esportif works with the likes of Charles Piutau, Rory Best, Devin Toner, Sean Cronin and Josh van der Flier.

Charles Piutau skips by Rory O'Loughlin Charles Piutau is among Esportif's clients. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Its international stable includes multiple All Blacks, such as Aaron Cruden and Jerome Kaino, and many other high-profile players and coaches.

The traditional agency side of the business remains front and centre, but Esportif formally added a new branch to its operation in 2016, with the launch of an ‘Intelligence’ division.

Hannah Bowe, an international hockey player and the sister of Ireland and Ulster wing Tommy, is Esportif’s ’head of advisory services’ and has led this element of the business since 2016, having initially joined on the commercial and media side of the operation.

Having previously worked with Deloitte in London, the Oxford University graduate has a background in accounting and the corporate world, making her ideally suited to this role.

Essentially, the Intelligence division provides advice to rugby bodies in the areas of recruitment and retention, their organisational structures, and insights into the industry.

The recruitment and retention element is the most glamorous, of course, and Esportif has recently released a range of intriguing social media posts relating to player salaries and comparisons across leagues and positions which touch on the work they do with clients.

“One engagement we do is working with a particular entity and looking at their recruitment over the next two, three years - who is coming off contract, who is in the pipeline from academy up and if they’re not there, where’s the gap?” explains Bowe.

“If there is a gap, who is available or going to be available in the market? What kind of ballpark price do they come at?”

Clubs could, of course, look to do this kind of work in-house, but the strength Esportif feels it has is the level of data being fed into Bowe’s work in analysing exactly how much players in specific positions and within different leagues are earning.

Esportif anonymises the data for data protection purposes, of course, but their analysis can be hugely important for rugby organisations looking to make decisions.

“There are various sources, the primary one being the players we represent,” says Bowe of how Esportif collates its data.

“We represent coaches as well and we work a lot with the directors of rugby, and the agents spend a lot of time building relationships with clubs, so you can filter a lot of information through that.

“The agents are quite friendly with the other agents, so while exact numbers might not be disclosed all the time, we’re confident in the numbers.

“Most squad players are in a similar bracket of salaries, so once you take into account the marquee signings and we’re on the money with them, you’re pretty much there.

“Ultimately, players and clubs will have their own way of doing things – whether it’s a bonus structure or a car or whatever that might be – but we’re just trying to capture what the fixed, guaranteed salary is.”

Bowe stresses that while data is fed into the Intelligence division by Esportif’s agents, the two branches operate separately – given that an agent could be representing a player or coach and her client may be that player or coach’s club.

Bowe also points out that managing and planning these things through an independent organisation like Esportif can be easier for the highest level decision-makers at clubs and unions to accept.

“So rather than the director of rugby going to speak to his board and saying they need more money or they haven’t invested in the right places, the board is seeing it on a piece of paper from an independent source and it has a bit more standing.”

In terms of working with clubs and unions, Esportif sees its Intelligence branch as working best on a bespoke basis, this being the kind of work that lends itself to carrying out projects in a number of different organisations.

Players salaries in rugby have grown rapidly in the last two or three years, particularly with the wealth of English and French clubs.

Interestingly, Bowe’s analysis shows that things are now settling down.

“To be honest, it’s levelling,” she says. “If you’re looking at a squad overall, there’s more money in England and France but if you’re looking at the top-level players, they’re very much on par on that line in the Pro14.

“In terms of salary, English players are pretty well remunerated for playing for the national team and that’s just at another level.

“That’s an incentive for those guys to be with the club where they get the opportunity to play their best club rugby and then get selected for England. That’s clever by England because it keeps players incentivised to put country over club.

Danny Care England's Danny Care is on Esportif's client list. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“So if you’re going to want to play with Saracens or Exeter at the moment, ultimately as a player you’re probably quite happy to accept less than what you’re going to take from a team at the bottom of the league.

“Because the guys who want to play for their country, there’s a fair bit of money you can make if you represent England, so it’s in your interests to be at the club that’s going to look after you and make sure you’re fit to play as opposed to being flogged and not performing.

“The IRFU’s system of enticing players to stay at home is probably the envy of others at the moment and that’s not without its own challenges, as has been in the press this year.

“They’re doing a good job of it and you’ve got to go back to the education of the player and having that knowledge that we have. Once there’s a ballpark that you’re within, because of the calibre of player you are, then the player is probably less sensitive to that extra monetary incentive to go elsewhere – they know other things will be looked after.”

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Esportif’s Intelligence division is not solely concerned with the area of recruitment and retention, however, with organisational structures being another primary focus.

Again, Bowe’s business background is useful here, although the directors of the company also play a major role.

“Rugby is growing up to it now,” says Bowe. “Three or four years ago there was a head coach and he maybe brought in an assistant and then an S&C coach.

“Now you have lots of the clubs who will have a recruitment director or a director of rugby who’s not on-field training on the pitch. Part of it is helping them with that structure, part of it comes down to the skills of the people they have.”

The third branch of Esportif Intelligence is centred on industry insights, as they study how rugby and other sports function in terms of revenue, ownership models, and competition structures.

“Where is the market going? Where is the money coming in? Have you looked at your catchment area, have you looked at your media profile, what other sports are in the area, what’s the revenue per seat?” are some of the questions Bowe and Esportif ask.

“Because they all feed into what a sponsor wants and whether you’re going to get people through the gate.”

The Intelligence division remains a relatively new one for Esportif, and Bowe is confident that there is plenty of growth still ahead.

Aaron Cruden offloads Esportif work with Aaron Cruden. Source: Photosport/Marty Melville/INPHO

“When we work with clubs or unions, everyone is interested to know what we can offer but there are also tight purse strings and it can take time to illustrate the clear value because it’s part of the long-term strategic thinking.

“Our information needs to continue to improve as we go too. We’re comfortable where it is but this has been our first year doing France, say, so we’re now digging into all the data throughout the squads and that data is getting very accurate.

“Japan is another market, so we are putting all of that together now. Esportif has grown as an organisation in the last three or four years and plan is to try and be the number one agency.

“How you measure that is a good question, but we want to be known as the most-trusted advisors rather than just the biggest or brashest.

“We’re hopefully on our way to that and this may be a re-focusing on what’s next. Rugby has been on this phenomenal trajectory and sport has been growing at a ridiculous speed and maybe now there’s a bit of consolidation.

“Now there’s a chance for us to kick on and broaden our offering.”

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