By OLIVER DOWDEN, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
IF there’s one thing I’ve learnt about Rugby League, it’s that it boasts some of the most devoted and passionate fans on the planet. And one message has been delivered to me loud and clear: Rugby League is more than just a sport.
For 125 years it has been the social glue holding communities together, providing a focal point for friends to come together, and making people proud of where they are from. For 125 years, through good times and bad, Rugby League has been there.
Then along came coronavirus, threatening to knock Rugby League off its feet.
Within the first few weeks of the crisis it became clear that League was drawing on all support offered but still facing a bleak outlook. As we looked more closely, we grew concerned that without the government’s help, the entire sport was at imminent threat of collapse. And it’s unthinkable to a country that loves its sport as Britain does, that we could lose one of our most historic sports virtually overnight.
So this week, after intensive work across government and with the Rugby Football League, we were able to hammer out a £16 million rescue package to support your clubs to cope with the immediate financial hit of coronavirus.
Losing the professional game in this country would have had huge ramifications, particularly when you consider that next year we are planning to pull off a world first and host three Rugby League World Cups at once: the men’s, the women’s and the wheelchair competitions. A true testament to this being one game, and one community.
But it also made economic and social sense, as it would have had a knock-on impact for the entire ecosystem that is built around Rugby League in England — for the local services that clubs provide, for the businesses that rely on them, and the sense of community they foster.
Many other sports are struggling during coronavirus and we’re helping them through wider government measures like the furlough scheme. But given Rugby League’s unique social impact and economic contribution to its communities, it became clear that we needed to make an exception and design a bespoke support package.
I was lucky enough to squeeze in a visit to Leigh Centurions in February before the pandemic hit, so I heard first-hand how central these clubs are to their local areas. Clubs were already giving back to towns and cities through their own well-established charitable programmes before coronavirus, and that charitable work has become even more important over recent weeks.
I know, for example, that Hull FC and Cheshire’s West Bank Bears have delivered food parcels to elderly people who are self-isolating, while Widnes Vikings, Warrington Wolves and many others have been phoning supporters – just to check in and make sure they’re coping in these testing times.
So just as your players go the extra mile to support their local communities, the government has made an exceptional case to do the same for the sport as a whole during this unprecedented period.
In the meantime, I look forward to when we can all cheer the players returning to the pitch, and we can all look forward to a successful Rugby League World Cup at home next year.