There is nothing quite like a pandemic for exposing hard, uncomfortable truths. And, give or take stand-up comedians, nightclub owners and first year university students, few face a bleaker midwinter than sports that live or die by people entering their stadiums each weekend. The word “catastrophe” usually jars in the context of mere athletic pursuits but increasingly, in rugby, there is no ducking it.
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the depth of the abyss into which much of the game – professional and amateur – in Britain and Ireland is now staring. At every level it relies, in sickness or in health, on the top of the pyramid delivering for the benefit of all. So when the Rugby Football Union, until recently the wealthiest union in the world, says a government bail-out is needed to prop up the whole edifice a chill shiver should run down the spine of everyone with an oval-shaped heart.
Imagine for a moment that, in addition to the many millions of pounds already lost, the 2021 Six Nations has to be played behind closed doors or cancelled altogether. In some ways the immediate pain it would cause within the elite game is the least of it. Bill Sweeney, the RFU’s chief executive, says there will be a £138m reduction in revenue if no spectators are allowed back into Twickenham before next summer, with the English community game braced for an estimated £86m revenue hit.
To transfer those numbers off a spreadsheet and drop them into real life is to risk a sizeable panic attack. Maybe a few Premiership clubs would be able to soldier on, courtesy of their sugar daddy owners, but a good number are already tottering. The Championship, supposedly the second tier of the English game, already looks doomed, with funding potentially set to be cut from £640,000 per club to £40,000 next season. Below them, dozens of impoverished local clubs with no income will struggle to survive, endangering the long-term supply chain from grassroots to national teams. The fledgling women’s professional set-up, sevens, age-group representative rugby, academies, referees … any number of talented and enthusiastic people have had the rug pulled from under them – or soon will.
The Irish Rugby Football Union’s chief executive, Philip Browne, has already given a stark assessment to an Irish parliamentary committee, suggesting the “very existence of professional rugby” in his country is under threat if fans cannot return in sufficiently large numbers. He revealed the IRFU’s cash surplus of €28m in June was likely to be transformed into a debt of around €10m by next summer and had no hesitation in using the “c” word. “Irish rugby’s net losses in 2020 are catastrophic,” he said. “The rugby infrastructure built over 150 years is under threat.”
Few in Wales and Scotland would argue differently and even the best-run professional club in England are feeling the intensifying heat. Exeter are essentially a conference and banqueting business with a rugby club attached and are currently losing at least £1m per month. Rob Baxter, their director of rugby, has spent enough time in board meetings to be genuinely alarmed. “It doesn’t take a genius to have concerns. I am a club director so I see the financial predictions, the expectations of what we need crowd-wise, what we need to be taking over the bar etc.
“There is a reality that this cannot go on, if we genuinely as a country want sport and sporting venues to be able to continue and provide what they do for their communities. Sport is a huge part of this country’s culture that we can’t just let slip by without taking some action about it. Let’s hope there is a genuine concern taken by the government in how they aim to help us and how they also aim to get crowds back in as soon as they possibly can.”
Then again, should government bail-outs be casually handed to organisations that have previously been awash with money and seemingly put little aside for a rainy day? Should certain administrators have allowed their dominoes to remain so tightly stacked or been so heavily reliant on a golden goose that has now ceased laying? In France this week the vice-chairman of World Rugby, Bernard Laporte, has been questioned by prosecutors investigating possible corruption. In Australia, Qantas has just withdrawn as main sponsor after 30 years, delivering another heavy financial blow to the sport down under. Rugby is in serious strife and not all its woes can be blamed on Covid-19.