WHEN Mark Dodson was appointed Chief Executive of the Scottish Rugby Union in September 2011, he was presented as the antidote to the austerity era of his immediate predecessor, Gordon McKie, who had chiselled the organisation’s bank debt down from £22m when he took office in 2005 (requiring interest charges of £1.5m per year) to a far more manageable £12.7m when he was ousted just under six years later.
The new man wasted little time setting out his stall. “In the early days, a lot of my focus will be on looking at the professional teams – their performances economically and from a playing point of view – I think it’s obvious that they need to be more competitive,” he said at his official unveiling.
This was music to the ears of Scottish rugby supporters who had endured a decade of mediocrity from the national side (with a win average of 1.3 per Six Nations tournament during the last 10 years) and the two remaining pro teams (who had only managed to make it to the quarter-finals stage of the Heineken Cup once between them in the competition’s 16-year history up until that point).
Dodson could not be held accountable for Scotland failing to make the knock-out stages of a World Cup for the first time in the country’s history in New Zealand just a month after his appointment – and he used that set-back as an opportunity to reinforce his message that Scottish Rugby was going to be more dynamic, assertive and self-confident going forward.
“My view is I am open for business,” he boldly proclaimed at a press briefing in Auckland. “This is a new start. We come in with a new product going forward.
“The real benefit of someone like me coming in is I’m not attached to anybody. I have no history. I call it as I see it. I’m not an Edinburgh man, I’m not a Glasgow man, I’m not even a Scot. I walked through the door and I’m here to do the very, very best for Scottish rugby and I’ve got a plan to deliver it in short order,” he promised.
Dodson then identified five priorities –
- Finding a model for the professional teams to which supporters and businesses will respond positively, including finding a more suitable new home for Edinburgh (at that time playing in the international bowl at Murrayfield) as well as Glasgow (still based at Firhill but about to move to Scotstoun)
- Improving the SRU’s revenue-raising ability on the commercial front by making it clear to past, present and future sponsors and partners that the organisation is once again “open for business”
- Improving the relationship with supporters and making the SRU more “user friendly”
- Ensuring that the national team has the right resource and the right back-up to perform
- Improving broadcast coverage of Scottish professional rugby
The eagle-eyed will have spotted that there was nothing there about growing the base of the game, and when confronted on that, Dodson gave an early example of his willingness to shoot from the hip with outlandish targets which make great soundbites but are not backed up by any real strategy.
“My ambition is to make rugby the preferred sport in most schools in Scotland. I think we’ve got a fantastic chance as well while football is going through some difficult times,” he asserted. “We are not an elite sport. We are about elite performance; we’re not about any other kind of elitism. Despite what’s happened in the World Cup here, this is is the only sport where Scotland is globally competitive.”
The following summer, Scottish Rugby outlined a four-year strategic plan, which included securing a Six Nations Grand Slam and winning the World Cup in 2015. People laughed but the CEO was steadfast. “The goals we’ve set reflect our ambition for the game in Scotland,” he said.
The Chief Executive initially stuck by the national team head coach he had inherited, but when Andy Robinson’s faltering stewardship of the side reached its nadir with a 15-21 loss to Tonga in Aberdeen in November 2012, he acted decisively. There was a long conversation between the two Englishmen on the Pittodrie pitch after the final whistle and by the following morning the coach was gone.
Australian Scott Johnson stepped up from his assistant coach role to take charge of the side on an interim basis with no discernible upturn in the team’s fortunes while Vern Cotter saw out his notice period at Clermont Auvergne before taking over the reins for the globetrotting 2014 summer tour to North America, Argentina and South Africa.
Officials at Clermont expressed disgust at Cotter fronting a press conference at Murrayfield wearing full Scotland kit in May 2013, and the coach subsequently acknowledged that: “There was clumsiness on my part and a lot of misunderstanding that has been publicised more than I would have liked.”
Meanwhile, Dodson exhibited his unwillingness to concede any ground on any matter. “We delayed our announcement out of respect to Clermont and Vern as they prepared for the two most important games in their season,” he retorted. “We are satisfied that we conducted our business in an honourable fashion and are sure Clermont appreciated our discretion.”
The outcome was that Clermont opted not to grant Cotter an early release from his contract and Scotland had to wait a whole 13 months to get their man. Despite this, the recruitment of the highly-rated New Zealander – who went on to lead Scotland to within a controversial refereeing decision of a World Cup semi-final appearances in 2015 – was generally regarded as a coup which underlined Scottish Rugby’s go-getter attitude under Dodson.
At pro club level, Glasgow completed their move to Scotstoun for the start of the 2012-13 season and Dodson stuck his neck out by switching the enigmatic Gregor Townsend from a Scotland assistant role to the top job with the newly rehoused pro side, in place of the well-liked and widely respected Sean Lineen who was shunted to an age-grade development position.
Vindication of that exercise in musical chairs arrived three years later when Glasgow – having lost two play-off semi-finals and then a play-off final, all to Leinster – finally lifted the Guinness PRO12 [as it was then known] title, by beating Munster on a breathtaking evening at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast in late May 2015. That remains the only meaningful piece of silverware ever won by a Scottish pro team.
On the whole, these early years at Murrayfield passed relatively smoothly for Dodson. He was regarded as a bombastic but effective operator. A tough negotiator with a habit of getting the big calls right. He was undoubtedly helped by a general upward trajectory in the national team’s fortunes after the appointment of Cotter – largely driven by a ‘golden generation’ of players which included the likes of Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Jonny Gray who had all emerged on the professional stage either just before or during the Chief Executive’s first year in post – which was key to driving ticket sales and revenue growth in line with the rest of world rugby.
A defining moment for the first half of the Dodson tenure came in May 2014 when a landmark four-year deal with BT worth an estimated £20m was unveiled, which included naming rights for the national stadium. This significantly eased the liquidity challenges Dodson had faced upon his arrival at Murrayfield some two and a half years earlier.
With his position fortified by that significant coup, Dodson signed a five-year contract extension in August 2015, which went mostly unquestioned at the time but was the first anyone had heard of a chief executive of a rugby governing body being given a fixed term deal, and was perhaps an early indicator that the balance of power at Board level was swinging away from executive accountability.
Dodson’s willingness to make big calls, and his faith in Townsend, was evident again when it was announced that Scottish Rugby was not going to renew Cotter’s contract after the 2016-17 season, and instead shift Townsend – who’d enjoyed success at Glasgow but was still fairly inexperienced as a head coach – to the national job.
Under Townsend, Scotland have consistently been more competitive against the top nations and achieved some notable one-off victories, but they failed to fire a shot in the pool games that mattered at consecutive World Cups in 2019 and 2023, and have finished in the top half of the Six Nations table only twice in six attempts (third in 2018 and 2023).
Looking beyond Scotland
Meanwhile, murmurings of discontent about a lack of cash and ambition trickling down to the grassroots began to grow in volume and frequency as Dodson reached the halfway stage of his reign.
The national team was becoming increasingly reliant on players who had learned their rugby outside Scotland but qualify to wear the thistle through residency or a relation from the country. 24 members of the 30 strong squad (80 percent) for the 2011 World Cup had come through the Scotland system, whereas that was the case for only 18 out of 31 (58 percent) players initially selected for the 2019 tournament, dropping to 17 out of 33 (52 percent) in 2023.
This shift in emphasis was highlighted by an imprudent PR stunt in October 2017 when Scottish Rugby effectively parked their tanks on English rugby’s lawn by hosting a press event in London for the London media to launch a shiny new SQ [Scottish Qualified] programme to scour the globe – and particularly England – in search of talent with tartan ancestry who might be persuaded to throw their lot in north of the Border.
It might have seemed like a wizard idea inside the Murrayfield big tent but was tone deaf to the anxiety around clubland about that tier of the game being increasingly seen as an unwelcome cost. Meanwhile, England’s then head coach Eddie Jones almost immediately flexed his employers’ muscles by summoning both Cam Redpath and Gary Graham – England raised sons of former Scotland stars – into Red Rose training squads. This sort of lack of diplomacy was a recurring issue during the Dodson era.
However, with Johnson – who had been appointed Director of Rugby after his spell as interim head coach of the national team – acting as a lightning rod for club unrest, Dodson remained relatively unscathed by the mood in the parishes … although that was about to change.
The rather sinisterly entitled ‘Agenda 3’ plan to reconfigure the way club rugby in Scotland would be organised and funded was presented by the CEO at the 2017 SRU AGM, who claimed it was going to “herald an overhaul of the sport in Scotland and offer solutions to problems that have undermined our game for nearly 30 years.”
Dodson promised an additional £3.6m would be invested into the club game during the first five years of this “transformational” programme. The presentation was slick, persuasive and initially well received, but soon shown to be completely misleading in terms of the promise of extra funding, outside of the cash being directed towards the new Super6 league, even though it was going to be run as part of the performance department to provide a ‘stepping-stone’ between the traditional club and the professional games.
Super6 (now called Super Series) has arguably been a step up from the old Premiership – as it bloody well should be given the level of investment in the teams involved – but remains largely unloved by both the clubs below and the pro sides above it in the player development ladder. Myriad practical, logistical and organisational issues – most of which were identified by critics before the league was launched – have continually hampered the credibility of the competition.
Agenda 3/Super6 – created after a window dressing consultation process and imposed through cynical manipulation of a weak Council – was a real turning point in Dodson’s relationship with the club game, and things went downhill fast over the next 18 months.
The Keith Russell affair
In June 2018, Keith Russell – the father of Scotland star Finn and former Director of Domestic Rugby at Murrayfield – won an unfair dismissal case against the Scottish Rugby Union, with The Offside Line reporting at the time that –
“The judgement records an incoherent and unconvincing explanation from Dodson and Robert Howat [the company secretary] as to why the decision was taken to dismiss Russell and relates a shocking failure to follow fair process and established procedures in carrying out that act. It ultimately presents the SRU as an organisation dominated by an erratic and autocratic leader, assisted and empowered by a clique of subservient senior staff, who all operate in an environment unencumbered by the need to be accountable to the Executive Board and/or the SRU Council.”
Dodson said he accepted the findings … but he didn’t really. He was asked by the BBC if he was embarrassed, and replied: “Nobody wants to be talked about in those terms, nobody wants the organisation talked about in those terms. I’m disappointed and I’m unhappy that we have been represented in such a way. It’s not true.”
Russell – who had been summarily sacked in May 2017, just a few months after he had received a bonus, a pay rise and a letter of thanks for his work from Dodson – said that he believed his reservations about the Agenda 3 programme, and the Super6 component in particular, was a key reason behind the souring of his relationship with the CEO.
In a devastating interview with The Offside Line and The Sunday Times, Russell delivered a scathing analysis of how the upper-echelons of Murrayfield operated.
“Decisions are made quickly and then changed without accurate analysis of the situation or clear strategy or tactics, It is the opposite of what a high-performance sports team should demonstrate. Results are not analysed and there is very little accountability. The open and transparent culture that coaches try to create in teams is not replicated at the top of the organisation. The SRU should have the ambition to be a modern, open-minded, partnership-working organisation that provides leadership in the sports sector in Scotland.”
“The attitude is: ‘It’s our way or the highway’,” he added later in the conversation when discussing how Scottish Rugby under Dodson chose to interact with the Scottish Government over a change in the criteria of their Cashback for Communities scheme. “The message was: ‘They’re not going to tell us what to do. Go back and tell them that we don’t want the money then’.”
Handily for Dodson, he had signed another well-timed contract extension adding three more years to the two years still remaining on his existing deal in March 2018, which was after the conclusion of Russell’s tribunal hearing but before the judgement – which was inevitably going to reflect badly on Dodson and the SRU – was delivered.
“It was important we continue the excellent momentum Scottish Rugby is generating at this time and as a Board we felt it was right for Mark to see through the exciting projects we are developing and provide valuable continuity,” claimed Colin Grassie, a former Deutsche Bank executive who had been a Board member since 2012 and taken over from Sir Moir Lockhead as Chair in 2017.
Grassie admitted at the 2018 AGM that he’d had no idea that the Russell bombshell was coming until the day he opened the email containing the tribunal judgement, which, given the reputational damage caused and the six-figure expense in costs and compensation, was a jaw-dropping failure in governance.
An internal review was initiated, with Lesley Thomson – the former Solicitor General for Scotland – charged with leading the enquiry into failings by the Board on which she served as the senior non-executive director.
Grassie had looked contrite enough during his AGM speech to initially convince his audience that lessons had, indeed, been learned, and he promised that the externally assisted internal review he was now instigating into the liberal use of non-disclosure agreements for departing staff at Murrayfield was a genuine attempt to address concerns raised by the Russell case. They were soon shown to be crocodile tears with both Thomson’s review and the review into the use of confidentiality agreements eventually reporting that, effectively, things had been taken care of and nothing more needed to be said on those matters.
Grassie and Thomson later had their Board tenures extended by 18 months and three years respectively (beyond the six-year mark laid out by the Dunlop Report which had provided the governance framework for the SRU since 2005), in recognition of their good work up to that point and to help “maintain a level of operating consistency within the organisation”.
The fight for control
Grassie also announced a review into the organisation’s governance at the 2018 AGM, which ended up being spearheaded by Sir Bill Gammell – a Dodson chum who had previously sat on the business advisory group the CEO had set up soon after arriving at Murrayfield in September 2011 and who had also recently chaired selection panel for Super6 clubs – working alongside his friend Norman Murray, another Edinburgh establishment stalwart and member of the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Neither Gammell nor Murray are known to have any pedigree to speak of in terms of sports administration or governance.
Despite plenty of Murrayfield resource being directed towards its presentation, the Gammell/Murray review was quickly kicked to touch by the clubs who recognised a power-grab when they saw it.
SRU President Dee Bradbury stepped in with a ‘governance task force’, which she persevered with through the early months of Covid, before it became abundantly clear that there was no way that the clubs were going to sign over ownership of the Union, its Murrayfield campus and its intellectual property rights, to the hired help.
While he managed to stay detached enough to maintain plausible deniability throughout these political machinations, it was impossible to escape the sense that a cabal had been assembled around Dodson who were determined to wrestle control of the business’ assets away from the clubs, come hell or high water.
When Grassie eventually fell on his sword, Dodson got his close ally John Jeffrey appointed Chairman – a fine rugby player, but a man singularly not qualified nor capable of being chairman of a £60m operation.
The feeling that it had become about ego and money more than rugby was multiplied by a factor of 10 when accounts lodged at Companies House revealed that Dodson had extracted £933,000 in pay and bonuses (from Scottish Rugby’s turnover of £61m) for the year up to 31st May 2019.
“Everybody is taking pot-shots at Dodson but who in his position wouldn’t accept what’s offered? It’s the SRU’s remunerations committee that gave him the deal in the first place. Is he supposed to say no? Should he give the money back? Would anybody?” argued an article on the BBC website, which was one – fairly outlandish – interpretation of how the Scottish Rugby Board and its sub-committees were operating at this time … as if this money had been forced upon the helpless CEO who had played no part in negotiating his remuneration package.
The pay scandal – perhaps more than anything else – set the tone for the second half of Dodson’s tenure.
Those admirable sentiments about growing the game no longer rang true. Using Doddie Weir to promote an extra November Test against Wales (played outside the international window as a naked fundraising exercise) without directing any hard cash towards the great man’s eponymous MND charity until public pressure forced Scottish Rugby’s hand, the disingenuous claim that Scottish Rugby was debt free in the 2019 Annual Report, and the questionable allocation of both the Covid-19 government bail-out and the CVC private equity windfalls, all fed into this sense of detachment.
In June 2017, it had emerged that Scottish Rugby had entered a mysterious partnership with Stade Nicois, which involved academy players and young coaches being seconded to play third and fourth tier rugby in the south of France. Then, in March 2019, it was revealed that Scottish Rugby had bought a 23 percent stake in Old Glory DC, an American ‘Major League Rugby’ franchise. Both endeavours were quickly identified by rank and file rugby people in Scotland as further evidence that the Murrayfield regime headed by the now all-powerful Dodson was more interested in presenting themselves as movers and shakers on the global stage than tackling the mounting challenges faced in developing players at home.
The Stade Nicois relationship went quiet after Covid, although the national team did use the French club as its training base during the recent World Cup. Meanwhile, the Old Glory investment of £881k was ‘written back’ in full in the financial statements for the year to 31st May 2022.
The 2019 World Cup presented another opportunity for Dodson to showcase his bull-in-a-china-shop brand of diplomacy when a typhoon headed for Yokohama threatened to cause the abandonment of Scotland’s final pool match against host nation, Japan. With Scotland having already lost to Ireland and Japan unbeaten in their three previous pool games, a cancellation would mean an early departure for the Scots, so Dodson decided to conduct a media blitz two days before the match in which he promised that he was “not going to let Scotland be the collateral damage for a decision that was taken in haste”.
On this occasion his antics divided opinion between those who felt he had unnecessarily antagonised World Rugby and insulted the host nation, and those who felt that it was incumbent on him as Chief Executive of Scottish Rugby to fight his team’s corner. The outcome was that the storm largely missed Yokohama and the game went ahead as scheduled, with Japan winning in emphatic style to send the Scots home. World Rugby subsequently slapped the SRU with a £70,000 fine and demanded an apology in response to Dodson’s handling of the situation.
The beginning of the end
Meanwhile, on the home front, Ian Barr – an avowed champion of the clubs’ rights as ultimate owners of the SRU – succeeded Bradbury as President of the organisation in August 2020 and made it his number one priority to properly tackle the thorny governance issue, with his Scottish Rugby Council Standing Committee on Governance [SCOG] consulting widely and, after years of wrangling between ‘suits’ and ‘blazers’, eventually coming up with a new structure, which was voted into being by an overwhelming majority of clubs at a Special General meeting of the SRU in September 2022.
Dodson’s aura of omnipotence was beginning to falter, although the old Board – still chaired by Jeffrey, a ferocious opponent of the new governance structure – did sign off a third contract extension up to the summer of 2025 (giving him another 18 months beyond the 16 months he still had to run on his pervious deal) as one of its last major acts before the changing of the guard.
The most recent SRU AGM, last November, was the first major test of whether the new structure was going to really provide appropriate leadership, and John McGuigan – who had recently replaced Jeffrey as Chair of Scottish Rugby Limited Board – stepped up to the plate with a heartfelt apology to the family of Siobhan Cattigan for the governing body’s failings during the lead-up and aftermath of the Scotland forward’s tragic death in November 2021.
It was a striking change in tone from the Murrayfield hierarchy’s previous head-in-the-sand approach, and during the subsequent press briefing Dodson couldn’t bring himself into line with this more compassionate mindset.
“I said at the time, we were looking at the fact-finding activity, we wanted to find out the facts, we didn’t know the facts at the time,” he said. “We now do know the facts and we now know what happened and understood where we were and John was approached by a third party to have that conversation with the Cattigans and once we understood the facts and were comfortable with what was in there and with that we believed happened, it was then appropriate for John to meet the family and John has issued a long apology today based on the things he heard and felt necessary to say.
“But I think you know as well as we do, once that legal action is intimated there’s a limit to what we can actually do, and I said that at the time.
“Even from a human perspective, we’re limited with what we can say – we now understand, we know the facts and we’re comfortable with the facts and the approach has been made to John, and John has followed through on behalf of the board.”
Eventually, McGuigan was brought into the conversation and delivered what can best be described as a slap-down on his floundering CEO.
“I’m the Chair of SRL and from my perspective, an international player died in tragic circumstances, and we should go and speak to their parents,” he firmly stated. “And I think that in the apology I read out earlier, we actually say, we should have gone and seen the family earlier. We say that, that is part of the apology.
“We should have gone and met the family earlier,” he reiterated. “And how difficult that may have been, who knows? But we should have still done that.”
However, it appears that it was concern amongst both the new SRL Board and the Custodian Board about the financials which decisively tipped the scales against Dodson. The accounts for the year up to the end of May 2023 revealed a £10.5m operating loss, which is survivable in the short term thanks to recent Scottish Government and private equity receipts, but not in the longer term. A classic case of selling the family silver and squandering the proceeds.
Concerns had been expressed before that the business model was unsustainable, with costs running out of control, and the failure to produce audited accounts for the Covid-impacted 2019-20 financial year until the £20m government bail-out had been secured (five months after the date they were supposed to be published according to the SRU’s own bylaws) should have been a red flag for anyone with a vested in interest in the financial well-being of the sport.
Alas, with a supine chairman, a puppet board and an outdated and much abused governance structure, nobody had been willing or able to grasp the nettle, and as rugby emerged from the Covid period, Dodson made little secret of his desire to ‘super-charge’ the pro game with an aggressive overseas recruitment programme.
Operating costs ballooned by 23.5% from £61.1m to £75.4m in the year to 31st May 2023. Despite spending £695k on a “redundancy and restructuring” programme, there was 59 more employees in the business at the end of May 2023 than there had been 12 months earlier (450 up to 509), with an average salary of £70,960 and an average cost per employee of £81,891 per year.
To compound matters, there are serious concerns (shared by other Six Nations countries) about the merit of doing business with CVC. Hilary Spence, Scottish Rugby’s Chief Financial Officer, admitted during a briefing to club members ahead of the AGM that “the cost of dealing with our private equity investors go up year on year, and that increased by £1.3m [last year]”, suggesting that the deal was, in fact, as many suspected at the outset, a gift which will keep on taking. If they needed £50m, why did they not just borrow it from the bank, using their Six Nations rights as collateral and only draw the cash down as and when they needed it?
After years of presenting the accounts with the help of smoke and mirrors, the illusion of financial wellbeing was no longer credible. For the first time, it seems, Dodson and Spence have been asked tough questions by both their fellow SRUL Board members and the Custodian Board, and they do not appear to have had satisfactory answers.
Getting rid of Dodson is a huge but essential call – it is an emphatic statement that this is a new era – even if the terms of his departure are not yet clear (he still has 17 months left on that lucrative fixed-term contract). He refused to discuss that matter during his press briefing earlier today.
Dodson was paid £676k last year, and almost certainly in excess of £6.5m over his 12-year stint at the top of Scottish Rugby. Plenty of pressure but rewarding work if you can get it. Now it is going to be somebody else’s turn in the hot seat.
Whoever takes his place has a tough in-tray to work through.
Last year, with three home Six Nations games and four Autumn Tests, the Union lost £10.5m. There are only two home Six Nations games this year, the Autumn Tests were lost to the World Cup and there are approximately £1m accrued costs from the World Cup. There is no prospect of inherent growth so effectively we are looking at a loss of £20m plus for the year to May 2023 as a starting point.
And then there is the question about Murrayfield – much loved but sadly neglected and in need of a serious upgrade. How is that going to be funded?
Dodson has built an expensive monolith around him at Murrayfield which will need to be gradually dismantled if Scottish Rugby is to become anything like a sustainable business entity. Generally, these are good people with the best interests of Scottish Rugby at heart and they need to be treated fairly – and that is going to cost money.
Things are likely to get worse before we can think about them getting better.