IT’S tough times for rugby and even more so for individuals across a range of countries and backgrounds. Companies and organisations face uncertainty and some difficult decisions. There are significant ramifications for grassroots rugby across the world.
The decline in the UK economy is estimated to be 13 percent; five percent higher than in 2008 and the worst since the Great Frost of the 1700s. Unemployment is anticipated to top 10 percent.
We’ve heard much from those involved in professional and World Rugby and their focus is, understandably, on the international and top class club game that pays their salaries and bonuses. Those administrators who thought they were sitting in safe, globetrotting, omnipotent roles and about to reach the end of the rainbow where they would collect the pot of private equity funding gold are now facing the fact that they could be redundant and possibly irrelevant in the uncertainty that surrounds rugby as a microcosm of the wider world.
In many ways, the challenges facing business and community organisations are more relevant to grassroots rugby than those facing World Rugby and the professional teams.
There are at least six areas that clubs need to think about as we start to think about restart and recovery.
Keeping players and members engaged
There is a risk that players (particularly mini and youth squad members) will drift from rugby.
Seasons weren’t concluded with any degree of finality and so most players will have no closure on the past few months of playing with team-mates and the ability to reflect on a season and talk about next. It’s that which often sustains players’ thirst for the game during the close season.
We have already had a longer break from rugby in lockdown than most clubs have between the end of one season and the start of pre- season.
There is an almost logarithmic relationship between time away from an activity and attrition, and rugby will be no exception. Not only will we see the departure of those who were likely to leave anyway but we also risk losing those who have found other things to do or simply lost interest because they’ve not been involved with club and team-mates, been able to watch live games or highlights on television, and been bored to death by the rugby podcasts.
Clubs need to work really hard to keep players engaged. Tiktok, quirky videos etc are not enough. Walking touch, touch rugby and other creative derivatives will help recall and re-engage members and friends. It could be a long warm-up in the recovery and re-start of rugby so some creative and effective ‘warm ups’ will be needed.
Sponsors will not be there or have less cash
We know that most sponsors invest in clubs for the love of the game or the community. If these sponsors truly evaluated the return on marketing investment then they would find that there are, in most cases, better ways to advertise or promote their services or wares. Sponsors need to be cherished and loved like we’ve never done before.
However, clubs need to look at the sectors their sponsors are in. This will impact on what can be anticipated going forward. Hotels and bars are shut, building companies are not able to work, others are fighting hard to survive and drawing on reserves to simply keep going. Of course, there are some who are doing reasonably well – anyone supplying to the NHS is flat out!
Clubs need to assess what sponsorship income might look like when we get going again and how they can help existing sponsors to restart their businesses as well as looking for new sponsors.
Other income streams need to be considered. When I ran a scout group in Aberdeen we raised £14k a year from a jumble sale in May and a Christmas book sale in November. Not sexy but a great cash generator.
Many clubs have full-time and part-time staff. Most will have made use of the government scheme and furloughed staff. However, this isn’t going to last forever and clubs will need to take a hard look at what they need and what they can afford going forward.
A number of commercial organisations are making staff redundant now in anticipation of the furlough scheme ceasing in the summer and there being no significant income streams to meet costs. Rugby clubs need to consider this also.
Council and public funding
Local authorities and other public bodies were already under significant financial pressure before Covid.
Funding for activity in schools and communities is likely to be re-assessed and could possibly be reduced. Clubs need to evaluate the risk and possible impact on their planned activity.
Rugby club membership fees are amongst the more modest sports club charges. However, no club should take it for granted that existing and long-standing members will simply keep paying. Consideration needs to be given to phasing payments for those who might have seen personal income reduce or disappear. Membership holidays might work, too.
The days of all players paying subs are dwindling; Covid will simply exacerbate this.
This article has already highlighted the issues that sponsors may face and this may knock on to what kit can be afforded by clubs.
Kit (other than Samurai) is generally are manufactured in China, South Africa, Philippines and Eastern Europe. Covid continues in most of these countries but China is heading back to normality and so supplies from there should be close to normal. Other countries are less certain.
So, that’s the bad news …
… however, there are some opportunities.
As set out above, clubs need to be creative in looking at new income streams for events and backing.
There will be segments of the membership base who haven’t been proactively engaged before and maybe able to help out now.
There are new events and new revenue streams to be developed.
Clubs have the opportunity to reinforce themselves as being pivotal in their communities. To that end, community engagement and collaborative working will be critical to success in terms of building followings again but also in terms of funding as grant-awarding bodies will look to support organisations that deliver a number of benefits and not simply a single dimension such as sport.
In conclusion, my advice is:
- Start planning now: do your risk and threat assessment; look at worst-case through to best- case scenarios. Ideally, you’ll need a return to play time-frame from government and Scottish Rugby to do this but that could be a while so at least put the building blocks in place.
- Work out your plans for restart and recovery now – make sure that you engage those people you need in place now.
- Keep all players of all ages and standards engaged and be positive about the future.
- Put your plan into action to protect your short-term future; those actions might be tough in the short- term but better for the long-term viability of a club. Take good advice on aspects such as employment law.
- Be empathetic about where rugby comes in people’s priorities. Life has changed.
- Set out and share your community plan and what you can do to work with other organisations.
- Finally, hit the restart button at pace – and with energy. Just like Covid, passion for rugby is infectious. We need to get our ‘ Rugby R number’ up to 3 or more!
As we’ve heard said: ‘let’s get club rugby done’!