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.
“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.
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.