Mark Dodson ready to be ‘defined’ by his response to the Covid-19 crisis

As Scottish Rugby faces a pivotal moment in its history, the Chief Executive has vowed to lead from the front for the benefit of the whole sport

Mark Dodson says he is ready to adapt from being an expansionist CEO to battling against a financial crisis. Image: Fotosport/David Gibson
Mark Dodson says he is ready to adapt from being an expansionist CEO to battling against a financial crisis. Image: Fotosport/David Gibson

SAY what you like about Mark Dodson – and this website has said more than most – but there is no denying that he talks a good game.

On Thursday’s conference call with media, Scottish Rugby’s Chief Executive was at his emphatic best, stressing with real conviction that he is up for the fight as the organisation he has led for the last nine years faces down the threat posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

It had been whispered earlier in the crisis, as Dodson kept a low public profile, that he was perhaps formulating an exit strategy – with a possible move to St James’ Park once the Saudi buy-out of Newcastle United football club is completed being mooted – but the 59-year-old used Thursday’s briefing to brush aside any suggestion that he and his executive team were not fully committed to the cause.
 
“We’ll deal with this,” he vowed. “We’ll deal with it properly, we’ll deal with it sustainably, and I won’t flinch anything.


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“We’ll make sure we get through this crisis, Scottish Rugby will still be intact, our pro teams will be there and competitive, so will our national team, and for our employees and all our stakeholders, we will work endlessly and tirelessly to make it work and make it happen for them. Because we can’t walk round talking about #AsOne and not deliver ‘as one’.

“I’d rather not be dealing with it, I’d rather be dealing with positive problems, but I don’t walk away from difficult situations. And I’ll be there when everyone else has gone home for their tea, put it that way.”

There is significant baggage here. The last two years have been rough for Scottish Rugby with a series of scandals and governance failures eroding trust amongst the grassroots. You get the sense that Dodson views this situation as an opportunity to redeem his reputation – to prove that he is worth the bumper £933k pay packet he picked up last year, and that he is driven by the greater good of the game and not just self-interest.

“This is a moment where, as a CEO, you face down the challenge,” he stated. “You don’t welcome it, but it comes onto your toes and it is how you are defined – how you are defined by your staff, how you are defined by other people and how you are defined by you guys [the press].”

Actions, of course, speak louder than words, and Dodson is going to have to harness all of his street-fighting instincts for this battle. He has been an expansionist during his time with Scottish Rugby – investing in clubs in France and the USA and pushing hard for the PRO14 to link up with South Africa – but he also has experience of cutting back businesses. In a previous life, he was Chief Executive of the Guardian Media Group’s regional operation during a period of significant retrenchment which included the closure of 22 titles across the north of England and heavy job losses.

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The challenge he faces here is different because he is not dealing with a purely commercial enterprise, a fact that he pointedly acknowledged during Thursday’s briefing.

“We’ve had sustained growth for over ten years. We’ve now had a revenue crisis in the same way that every other business and every other union has had. We have to adapt our tactics to make sure we can get through this period safely and keeping the whole game in shape,” he said.

“It’s not just the professional game. We’re not only a commercial business where we have to keep our pro-teams and our international team competitive, we’ve got a responsibility as a governing body to the whole domestic scene, clubland and youth sport across Scotland.

“That’s a pretty difficult balancing act at times. But what we’re going to have to do is look at our business and reset it. We’ve got a four-point plan: respond to the crisis, reset, recover and rebuild. That’s what we’ll do and we’ve got the skills inside the business to be able to do that.

“I’ve worked in businesses that have been massively successful, but that also had real problems like the press have got at the moment. I’ve been there and understand what it takes to get the organisation back on an even keel and then drive it forward again.

“It’s happened before, it will happen again, and we will have to change our posture – but we won’t change our posture for long. Once we’re through this, we’re going to start to grow our business again because that’s how we pay for everything.” 

Dealing with realities

The reality is that for all the stirring rhetoric, we are still no closer to understanding the full extent of the crisis and the consequences thereof. If Scottish Rugby has budgeted for the worst-case scenario of the Autumn Tests going ahead behind closed doors then what is being done now to prepare for that eventuality? Whereabout in the sport are the cutbacks really going to bite? Time is of the essence. Clubs, employees and supporters need to know where they stand.

The value of strong governance – specifically meaningful oversight – has never been greater. Deals are going to have to be cut, decisions which will fundamentally impact Scottish rugby for decades to come will have to be made, and a balance will need to be struck between cold-eyed commercialism and protecting the fabric of the game.  


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David Barnes
About David Barnes 1873 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

27 Comments

  1. I’m confident Dodson is the man to steer the SRU through these turbulent times. Nobody is perfect but he has a steady hand and that’s what’s needed on the tiller right now, not more navel gazing and negativity

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    • Do enlighten us on your support for MD. I’ve seen nothing in his CV or current role that would support your case. In fact the complete opposite. His tenure at Murrayfield has been characterised by largesse. Lots of cash to fling around and he has done. Not so easy when cash disappears.

      But always open to persuasion.

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  2. “This is a moment where, as a CEO, you face down the challenge,” he stated. “You don’t welcome it, but it comes onto your toes and it is how you are defined – how you are defined by your staff, how you are defined by other people and how you are defined by you guys [the press].”

    Well taking away the “yes” men who accompany him to the trough the views of his staff, others, the press and the public have long since defined him and his deluded ramblings in this interview only prove us right.

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    • You have used the collective of public and us as though they think with one unified, hived mindset and they don’t, something that has never been more blindingly apparent than in recent weeks.

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    • I rather thought it was blindingly obvious that I was talking about the view on Mr Dodson and not other events occuring at the moment William but there you go.

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    • I know what you are referring to and the point still stands, you are applying your view and transposing it on many.

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    • Many but not all. As can be seen by the many online comments on many different platforms supporting my view.

      Other views are available.

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  3. In reply to Dom Ward.
    Other university club played in the Saturday league and some did forfeit some games. In the 35 years in which I was connected to the Edinburgh University Rugby Football Club they never forfeit any match.
    Just over 2 years at Inverleith home of Stewart’s Melville RFC the Scottish Universities rugby football club beat the Scottish under 20s national.
    The Scottish Universities Rugby Club were never funded by the Scottish Rugby Union the players of the Scottish Universities Rugby Football Club paid for there own gear.
    Years ago they used to be a Scottish Universities international played against international universities at the home of Edinburgh University Rugby Football Club on the Friday afternoon.
    And get crowds over 700 to watch them.

    • I can only speak about Caley and Midlands specifically.

      Stirling Uni were serial offenders. To be fair to them their terms differ from all other unis.

      Dundee (not the medics) and St Andrews also suspect to being unable to raise a team.

      Now they are in good company with several club XVs being pretty poor as well.

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    • I remember it fondly, I played in the game when we gave England a going over in front of a big crowd at peffermill. They were some of my favourite games along with the district under 18s matches and the free bar you’d get after the match (you’d never get that now).

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  4. Dom Edinburgh University Rugby Football Club got as high in the then Premiership 3 and the coach then was and ex Grangemouth rugby club player in Dale Lyon. I still keep in touch with Dale. To me personally I think that all University sides should be back playing in the Saturday league.

  5. He will be, as much as there might be some truth in a lot of what has been said in the comments section under this article, a lot of it is small fry when looking at what lies ahead.

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  6. Never been a fan of Dodson. He is arrogant beyond normal parameters, and does not listen to what is being said on the ground. He is not what Scottish Rugby needs as a leader. We need someone who is emotionally invested in our society and not some pay-to-play director, who will only focus on what he’s done to justify his salary.

    Our union is not in good shape.

    The grass roots of the sport are in rag order. We have very little going on outside of the usual suspects to produce talent, and the sport is still seen as elitist, and a “posh boy” sport.

    It needs to get beyond that and into an arena of perception that takes it away from those views. We need genuine investment at that level with programs that are inclusive, fun, technically astute and give out the right message.

    Take a look at Leinster as a model. They have managed to create a pool of talent that is overflowing. So much so, that other provinces are benefiting as a result because there is simply no room for some of them in the senior team. The competition for position is incredible, and it all starts at grass roots.

    I coach in Ireland and we have some impressive young guys playing good club rugby, that can, and do make that step up through the provincial academy. Leinster also field a team of Community Officers who travel round the region going to schools, community centres and clubs to ensure that rugby is at the front of the mind of those that would not normally consider playing rugby.

    It all points in one direction…and I don’t see much evidence of that in Scotland.

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  7. The single largest problem facing club and youth is the shortage of numbers playing the game. This impacts on club membership, fundraising and income, future executive personnel and match officials, etc.

    The reasons are well known – changing social interests, collapse of schools rugby, wider rabge of sports options at school, with rugby generally reduced to a 6-week taster session, massive increase of young people going off to uni and being lost to the game and so on.

    The lack of competitive schools rugby is the core problem. If you have say 80 state schools playing regular fixtures, as per previous teachers’ strike, you have a conveyor belt of young players available to the game. We have just 25 or so, mainly in Lothians and Borders, so club numbers are inevitably short.

    What to do about it? The clubs have done really well getting mini rugby going and keeping it going,which is a major and resource-heavy undertaking. But they made a major mistake 8 years ago regarding schools rugby.

    At the time, the excellent Schools Conference had been sechoolst up, involving 40+ private and state schools. There were a further 30 or so SRU ‘Schools of Rugby’, most of them playing competitive fixtures, which it was proposed would form regional conferences, the so-called Tier 4 Conferences. This would have gone a long way to restoring the schools conveyor belt of future club players, with some 50 state schools playing some regular rugby.

    But the clubs put the mockers on it, they wanted the school players playing in club youth teams. It had been sensibly decided that the players could play for school or youth of a weekend but not both.

    Net result was that the Tier 4 schools effectively ceased playing school fixtures. There were keen schools across the country – Inverness, Perth, Dunfermline, Falkirk, Ayrshire, Glasgow etc – which have effectively disappeared off the rugby map. Instead, we have Highland, Perthshre,Dunferline, Falkirk, Ayr etc etc drawing on 2-3-4 schools each in order to put out their youth teams. Instead of 15-3₩-45 school players turning out on a Saturday, we have 15 cherry-picked ones and the others are lost to the game. And the clubs are still struggling to put out youth teams.

    It was a wrong decision, we should have nurtured and grown the schools game, instead some 20 clubs managed to derail the process in pursuit of club advantage. You can hunt for these schools in the Schools Cup in vain, they have almost all dropped out long since as they no longer have teams.

    The SRU needs to start again the laborious task of building up the number of schools playing regular rugby. There need to be tough rules that clubs can not field Schools of Rugby players in youth games or the tug of war will never end. If club youth reduces to U17 and U16 players who have left school, so be it.

    Most clubs would be unaffected, 50 or 60 sohools being off limits leaves 250 to recruit youth teams from. It is the only way we are going to get player numbers back to any useful level, the club youth route has clearly faed to do so.

    As said, most clubs would be unaffected due to not having a school of rugby.

    Excuse any autocorrects…

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    • Without any concrete evidence to go along with my assumption I would suggest that the majority of the kids with the opportunity of playing Rugby at School would prefer to stay within a School playing system, it’s with their pals, they have a ready made ‘esprit de corps’ for want of a better description and they have the fore-knowledge that they are going to be up against a similar standard of player.
      With that thought in mind if the primary drive is to Schools Rugby surely the catchment numbers must be a greater. There again not knowing the system perhaps I have got the wrong end of it.
      Recalling the system as I knew it School Rugby was School Rugby: if you wanted to continue there was the Former Pupil or Old Boy’s rugby system, if you went to University again there were plenty opportunities and then again from those clubs the final progression was to a Senior Club, County then International: and dare I say if it worked in the amateur days, why couldn’t it work now, it seems a natural progression to go from the School system and then sorting out the better players at 16 and above. Those players with the ability to go professional will no doubt put themselves forward the lads that are happy with the amateur game have plenty of opportunity providing the support is there for the amateur game.
      I’m sure I will be corrected if I have got the wrong end of the stick.

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    • But why did Murrayfield implement their one game in a weekend for kids?

      Scottish Rugby is the only major Union across the globe that has this policy – every other Union has a policy in line with World Rugby Memorandum – for kids, one game a day.

      Some have argued that Murrayfield intentionally implemented this unique policy so as to pit Club v school – knowing that where a teacher has access to kids 5 days a week, then it would more often be the school who got the game played.

      The policy meant that for many Clubs, there is no link between school & Club. So when School has played their limited season (often in games that go through as unfulfilled due to lack of players), the “players” stop playing, and will in all likelihood not play the game in the long-term – but with a “fewer, but stronger” policy, that outcome probably fitted quite nicely.

    • Im with pegj on this one – the decision to restrict players to one game a weekend is a big mistake. Not that we should look to the past but I used to play for my school in the morning and my U18 side in the afternoon.

      We have a fundamental issue with games not being played. So school”teams” might be there but if they arent actually playing or playing very irregularly are they actually a team?

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    • George – I think youve picked up the wrong end of the stick here

      Schools of Rugby is an idea borrowed from football where a school has a specialist centre focused on a specific sport. The intention is that they have teams at all years of high school. I havent looked at the data recently but as pegj points out the actual numbers of players as demonstrated by games played seems to be mismatched.

      The University example is a fascinating case study on unintended consequences (at least i hope they are unintended).

      Most Scottish Unis had a team in Saturday league competition somewhere. Edinburgh got to a pretty high level and were a serious prospect as an opposition given young, fit and motivated players who also had a good skill level.

      At some point this began to fall apart. The Unis focused more on BUSA leagues. Their Saturday teams became weaker and started to default fixtures. Not helped by term times and league Saturdays.

      To further erode this various Uni DoRs began to ban their players from playing club rugby on a Saturday as they were too “valuable” to the Wednesday team.

      I also note that Scottish Unis side doesnt feature anymore.

      So a whole avenue for players has been closed. Possible a player who only played school rugby then for their uni has no experience of the club game until they get to 21-22 and are entering the world of work

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    • Thanks Dom, I said I wasn’t sure and only commented as I recalled things and my family moved when I was just coming into teens so most experience of those days were down South. Thanks. G.

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  8. Newsflash – CEOs are defined by everything they do or don’t do.

    MD can be as successful getting us through this crisis As he hopes. He will still have the stain of Russell and antagonised clubs on his CV whether he likes it or not.

    With all that said are we seeing a different MD? “ We’re not only a commercial business ” well spotted Mark. Just needs you to behave as if you weren’t just the CEO of a commercial business and work with the actual owners of that business.

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  9. A claimed 10 years of growth, yet the male adult game and youth game are in dire straights (even before covid).

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    • Paul – it looks like MD is referring to revenues.

      I also notice he recognises that working in a growth phase is different to when things are on the down cycle. I have my doubts that there are the people at Murrayfield with the skills required to lead us out of where we are. But we will find this out soon enough.

      Controversial perhaps but maybe it’s time for Gordon MacKay type person

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  10. I only got as far as the first sentence were it was suggested that ‘he talks a good game’ and felt compelled to add to the comment, but that’s what Bull…. merchants and Chancers’ are famed for.
    ,For instance ‘I’ve worked in businesses that have been massively successful’. Well so have I but in all honesty I can’t say that it was my contribution that made them the success, and if he was that good why was he not retained when GMG were taken over? Not wanted on voyage it seems. He wasted huge amounts of money on a local Tv. network that was anything but a success, so much so that even a Member of Parliament went on record questioning his squandering of the money, all facts and not actionable to put the moderator and lawyers mind to rest.
    Continuing the article I am no clearer as to what the plan is, words are cheap, fine words butter no Parsnips: so many different ways of saying I’ll believe it when I see it. ‘It’ being the good governance of the SRU, its member Clubs be they Professional or Amateur.
    Ps. The next quote will be something along the lines of ‘If it hadn’t been for this virus we would have been the most successful Union in rugby’.

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