Are League 1 clubs being left to wither?

Gareth Walker hears the concerns of clubs in Rugby League’s third tier

Coventry Bears’ founder and owner Alan Robinson was unequivocal when he went public about the impact significant centre funding cuts could have on his club last week.

“This sort of blow is catastrophic, there’s no way to sugar coat it or beat around the bush,” the former Ireland international said.

“It feels like my heart’s getting ripped out.

“I’ve tried for the last 23 years to grow the sport and it feels like we could be at a catastrophic end.

“I don’t wait it to be the end, but what can we do with such a huge drop in funding?

“I’m not sure whether the penny has fully dropped with other people, but it well and truly has with me.”

Talking to Robinson, the emotion in his voice was clear.

And this wasn’t an irrational rant – it was full of considered points about the future of the sport in the Midlands.

“I’ve been very open about the fact that we heavily rely on central funding because that is our model – we are still establishing our business as a professional sports club,” Robinson explained.

“I know there are some people within the game that say that doesn’t constitute a professional club, but my argument to them would be how many other clubs have gone bust when owners stop pouring their money in?

“To me it’s about running your business accordingly, and such a large funding cut as this could mean the end of Coventry Bears, I want to be honest about that.

“How many new businesses could survive a loss in funding with such little time to establish itself? Other clubs have been around for decades.

“We are six years, including Covid, into the semi-pro game and we are a developing business, not a millionaire’s play thing. There has to be room for true sustainability.

“Now it looks like everyone is retreating to the north of England, protecting all their self-interest and it’s heartbreaking.

“The sport needs to really challenge itself and look in the mirror.”

This isn’t just an issue for clubs outside of the heartlands.

Hunslet are among the more traditional clubs set for huge hits next year, and their coach Alan Kilshaw believes the uncertainty around the situation is damaging for his players’ mental health.

“It’s very difficult,” Kilshaw said.

“In previous seasons the teams I worked with during the play-offs with a chance of promotion could offer players League 1 and Championship contracts.

“But that’s not the case at the moment because we don’t really know what budget we’d have for League 1. It’s very much up in the air, and that uncertainty isn’t good for players.

“We talk a lot about player welfare and this uncertainty isn’t good for that.

“Yes they are semi-professional players, but there is anxiety there over not knowing how much they will be getting paid next year.

“They all have bills and their own way of life, and Rugby League might be the differences between another ten hours a week at work or a family holiday.

“Then there’s Christmas coming up with kids. It isn’t healthy for the players.”

Kilshaw is convinced that clubs like Hunslet are worth investment from the sport as a whole.

He added: “Sometimes people get hung up on big city teams, and I’m a strong advocate of that as well, but these clubs have been around since Rugby League started.

“These towns are full of Rugby League stories, history and heritage, and they do a lot of work in their local communities and schools.

“It’s also a very accessible sport – football is the biggest sport in England, but those teams and players aren’t accessible to young fans like Keighley Cougars, Hunslet, Dewsbury Rams or whoever it might be are.

“The game is rooted in these local communities and it’s a massive thing for families to come and support their teams on a Sunday afternoon – we saw how much people missed that in lockdown.”

It’s never an easy existence for semi-professional Rugby League at this level – and it’s going to get a lot harder from 2022 onwards.

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