Barrow chairman Steve Neale on cut-price ticket initiatives, the health of the sport outside Super League the future of Cumbrian rugby

As a man who has carved a successful career in the world of gambling, Steve Neale knows a calculated risk when he sees one. But even by his own standards, the Barrow Raiders Chairman’s decision to launch aggressive cut-price initiatives that essentially allow everyone to watch the club for free in 2020 is bold to say the least.

It is a drive to increase crowds and attract younger audiences to the club like nothing ever really seen before in the game. Over 11,000 children in south Cumbria have been given a season ticket for nothing. Should an adult bring ten children with them, they get in for free too.

Early birds

Neale and Barrow haven’t stopped there. If anyone arrives before the 12:45pm curtain-raiser begins at any Raiders home game, they’re allowed in free of charge. It is a bold, revolutionary move that while, commendable in terms of its ambition, surely brings financial risks too, given the possibility of losing paying customers on the gates. So why do it?

“We’re an ageing crowd,” Neale tells League Express. “Relegation last year couldn’t just turn into a wake. You drop down, you lose a few hundred off the gate every week and slowly wilt. Or you try and mix things up. “We’re trying to view relegation for this club as the spark, as a turning point – not a negative.

“We have to take a few risks, and try and get younger people watching our game.” Neale is also bullish enough to admit that these initiatives have been done with one eye on 2021, and the new broadcast deal, which could shape the sport’s future for the better or worse. Any drop-off in funding will be felt hardest by Championship and League 1 clubs. Neale believes that while the outlook for some clubs could be bleak, Barrow can afford to take this risk due to their own healthy position.

Multiple funding sources

“If the funding stops then some clubs would die instantly, as they’re reliant on the funding and that’s their business model – but it wouldn’t be the end for us,” he says. “I think some would disappear pretty quickly, yeah. I can’t speak for all the clubs but there’s some unease among Championship chairmen that the game needs the best deal possible for them to survive.

“But we brought in close to £1,000,000 last year and only a fifth was through RFL funding. I’ve talked to some Chairmen who look at Barrow with envy in respects to the income we generate. It could be a Championship put together by invite or for the well-run clubs post-2021, and if we’re going to have a league of the best-run 16 teams tomorrow, we’d be one of them. We’re hearing reports of Ottawa, New York and Valencia joining, but you can also see some established clubs falling away.”

While those income figures are not quite on the level of your juggernauts of the game, they are still supremely impressive for a club that reportedly had just £7.50 in the bank in mid-2018, and were staring down the barrel of administration when they were unable to pay wages.

“Within two months of coming in we had to declare the fact that we had no money left, and we were projecting a £100,000 deficit with no bank that would touch us,” he admits. “You’ve never awash with surplus income and sometimes you have to dip into your own pocket, which we did. But last year, we brought in £1,000,000 worth of income, which I would imagine is a record for the club.”

Planning ahead

“It’s been a real journey. When I joined two years ago there was no plan and it was a day-to-day existence, but now we have proper plans, a genuine business plan and, while you can’t work to the exact letter, the key thing is growing the game and growing the crowds and that’s the aim we’ve tried to follow.”

Their new-found financial footing, coupled with a desire to shake the sport’s tag of being watched by an ageing, elderly audience, is what has led Neale and Barrow to where they are at now. Cynics – and there are plenty of those in this game – are asking how they can make ends meet money-wise when they are letting people in for free.

Neale does not profess to have all the answers, but he has some hopes. Many of them lie within the RFL’s Key Performance Indicators. “There are obviously initiatives in those KPIs regarding crowds,” he reveals. “We’ve got one eye on that, and it might work in our favour having people boosting the numbers. There are various levels of funding based on where you are in the league table of crowds.

Aiming high

“We want to be in the top ten outside Super League, which is where we were last year with an average of nearly 1,400, and we get a financial reward from the RFL if we do that. I’d actually like to be in the top five long-term, though that will be tough.

“Last year we picked up £14,000 for being in the top ten; that could be around £21,000 this time. There are decent chunks of money on offer with the KPIs and you’ve got to show you’re a well-run club to get them. We’ve lost about £100,000 not being in the Championship and while we won’t get all that back by being well-run in regards to the KPIs, we’ll get some back.”

Neale also sees ways to make up the shortfall from turnstile receipts elsewhere. “We’ve got new sponsors looking at us off the back of this,” he explains. “I just want it to make us a bit more attractive.” With so many free season tickets, and so many new initiatives, just how much higher does Neale believe the crowds can go?

“It’s a complete unknown, and that’s exciting, but we’re in a position to be able to do it,” Neale says. “We’ve had parents ringing us wanting tickets for their kids, and as the year goes on, hopefully it will grow and grow to a point even we couldn’t imagine. We were the second-best run club in terms of finance in the Championship last year based on the KPIs, so there’s really not a massive reliance on any one thing.

“We’ve got lots of different income streams, run a lot of events and we have a fantastic community programme. We’re not heavily reliant on any one thing, so we can afford to take a risk in one area. Plus we own our own ground so any secondary sales are straight into us. They might not spend £15 at the gate, but it’s in their pocket, so it might come to us during a different form in merchandise or beer sales. Clubs who rent grounds won’t have that luxury. They’re totally reliant on admission fees.”

Cumbria has long been one of Rugby League’s most curious hotbeds. The talent is there, as is the potential you suspect, but there has never been any semblance of it coming to fruition. What Neale and Barrow are doing by themselves will not revolutionise the area and make it the sport’s next big thing. But at times like these, you at least have to applaud someone for trying something different.

“We aren’t like other teams, with bigger clubs on our doorstep,” he says. “The reason Super League hasn’t had a Cumbrian team is that they haven’t been well-run, it’s as simple as that. This is a five-to-ten year project, and we have every right to dream of the big time. I want to leave this club with a younger audience who can support Barrow for years to come. It’s a gamble – but a calculated one. “There are not many successful gamblers around and I’ve managed to be one. So who knows!”