Grassroots membership fees row rumbles on

The Rugby Football League, which is pressing ahead with plans to introduce membership fees for amateur players from next year in the light of changing funding strategies at Sport England, has stressed that such fees will be ring-fenced to support the grassroots – and that any surplus over and above the £700,000 needed to meet the annual cost of centrally administering the community game will be ploughed back into the amateur arena.

Sandy Lindsay MBE, the Chair of the RFL Community Board (and a Non-Executive Director of the RFL), said: “If we get this right – and we will – we’re hoping to not only cover the core costs but also have surplus that we can spend on the community game. We absolutely guarantee that this is where the funds will be spent – maybe on a regional development officer to help grow participation, and maybe on a commercial manager to bring even more money into the game.”

In a nod to successful funding initiatives offered through the 2021 World Cup, she added: “There could also possibly be a ‘Created By’ type of fund which clubs can pitch for funds from.”

She continued: “The decision to introduce a membership programme to the game of Rugby League has been discussed and delayed for many years. We know that our communities are some of the most deprived in our country and that the work we do through the RFL, the leagues and the clubs makes a massive difference to them every day. But we also know that it costs £700,000 a year (nothing like the £2 million that’s been speculated) to run the community game alongside the leagues and the clubs, and that we’ve historically been supported by excellent partnerships with Sport England and other Government bodies, who have been saying for many years – quite rightly – that we, like all sports, need to become more self-sustaining. We’re sure they will continue to fund ‘additionality’ and growth but the core costs of the game need to be funded by the people who enjoy it.”

She revealed: “England Boxing has recently gone through exactly the same process. The sport sits in similar communities to us – some of the most challenging neighbourhoods in the most difficult towns and cities – but, although the initial reaction was the same as in our sport, the prophesies of doom have not come to fruition. In fact, we’re told, their community game is seeing increased participation and growth as a result of having more funding.”

Annual fees had been envisaged, initially, as £30 (open age) and £22 (youth and junior). Lindsay, however, announced: “Many have said this is a ‘tick box’ exercise and that we’re not really listening. This is not true. Already, based on feedback from leagues and clubs, we have agreed to reduce the amount payable by under 11s to £12 per year, up to 18s will be £18 and open age £25 (and Cubs will be free). So the maximum anyone will pay is the equivalent of around £2 per month. From our research it will be, by some margin, one of the lowest memberships in sport.”

The RFL also aims to introduce, at some stage, family membership packages. “We hope that the reduction in the under 11s fee will help alleviate some concerns in the meantime, and we are also offering an option to spread payments,” said Lindsay, who added that a number of volunteers have also expressed interest in acquiring memberships, and not always at lowest-tier prices.

A number of leagues are advising players not to register but Kelly Barrett, the RFL’s Head of Delivery (Community Game Competitions) said in her weekly email to clubs: “Some clubs have fed back about the possibility of clubs collecting membership monies and making the payment on behalf of players. We are looking to establish if this is feasible.”

She added: “Further clarity (has been) given around some of the myths that have arisen: volunteers will not be subject to any form of compulsory membership although following requests could join on a voluntary basis; the benefits that will form part of the membership package are being finalised and will be outlined next week, and consultation is continuing. The online survey remains open, and we will continue to seek the views of the various stakeholders across the community game.”

However, North West Youth Chair Mick Doyle informed his clubs: “I would like to put the record straight on behalf of my fellow chairs Kevin Davidson (13s-15s) and Tammy Smith (16s-18s) and myself.

“What Kelly is not telling you is that there is widespread opposition to what the RFL is proposing. We have made our opposition clear, and it is misleading to state the community game is not financially sustainable. What the RFL means is they are no longer able to fund the services they purport to provide, due to a reduction in Sport England funding.”

Doyle continued: “As you are all aware we have our own website, funded by the clubs, in which all our competitions are managed by your elected volunteers at no cost and with no funding received from the RFL to assist us in our administration. There is no need for financial assistance as we the leagues are self-financing.
“The RFL’s LeagueNet registration system is heavily dependent on the goodwill of community volunteers. As you will all know, the likes of David Lowe, Jean Palin and Tammy dedicate a huge amount of personal time helping to bring up to date the RFL’s system – all at no cost to the RFL. What value do we place on that as a service?”
He alleged: “Some clubs invited by the RFL (to their survey), who are not openly identified, are being misrepresented in their alleged approval of the scheme. We know this because the clubs are contacting us with their concerns.

“The RFL are putting their own spin on events to make it look like the clubs and leagues approve of the scheme. WE DO NOT.”

Doyle concluded: “We feel that to come to our players for financial assistance is totally wrong given the amount of investment you the clubs already provide in enabling playing opportunities within your local communities – which probably runs into millions of pounds each year.

“Please let the RFL know how you feel as they are failing to acknowledge the true strength of opposition to this proposed scheme. The community game will survive with or without the RFL; the RFL cannot survive without the major shareholders of the game – you the community clubs.”

One North West club, Manchester’s Folly Lane, wrote to Barrett advising: “We are opposed to the RFL imposing an annual charge on our 250+ members.

“How are we supposed to attract volunteers, then ask them to pay for the ‘privilege’ of volunteering? The club would end up paying for this, in the region of £5,000 per annum. Taking that out of our annual budget would crucify us. Like most clubs, we ‘beg , steal & borrow’ just to stay afloat.

“We think the RFL is overlooking the true value that community clubs bring to the professional game. We provide supporters, players and volunteers to the pro game in so many different ways. Supporters are the obvious one, but we also provide volunteers, in conjunction with Foundations for example, helping to coach kids at pro club junior sessions. Players? But for the community clubs there would be absolutely no pro game. We at Folly Lane have a fantastic record for providing players to professional clubs, (including) Kallum Watkins and Jack Wells (Salford Red Devils), Harrison Hansen (Toulouse), Matty Ashton (Warrington Wolves), Will Hope and Luis Roberts (Swinton Lions), Jack Spencer (Oldham Roughyeds) and Aaron Hall (Dewsbury).”

Folly’s spokesperson continued: “We have a rich history too. Derek Whitehead was a Lance Todd Trophy winner at Wembley and Les Holliday toured Australia with Great Britain in 1992. The current Director of Rugby at Salford Red Devils is an ex-Folly Lane junior. These are but a few examples; what value does the RFL put on this past, present and future supply of talent and manpower to its professional competitions?

“We are 75 years old this coming September, and have got through all those years on the strength of kind people volunteering their time for their love of Rugby League. Please don’t extinguish that continuing love with annual membership fees for players and volunteers.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Bank Quay Bulls. The Warrington outfit’s chair Kelly Cragg and CWO Nicola Hemming told Barrett: “Your proposal to charge an annual registration fee to all players, including children, and to the volunteers in the amateur game would have a disastrous effect on a very considerable number of children and their families as well as to the amateur game itself.

“Amateur rugby league has always had a positive, beneficial effect on our young people who have been introduced to the sport, and in particular those from areas of social deprivation such as ours. Whilst parents fully understand the need for subs to be paid to our club, the suggestion of the RFL introducing an additional annual charge to all junior and open age players in addition to volunteers is being met with disbelief and significant concern.

“We feel that there may be alternative courses of action which could be taken, however at present given the lack of transparency, consultation with our club and understanding of the benefit this registration fee would bring to us, it is difficult for these to be considered and discussed.

“We would welcome the opportunity to review the proposal and the evidence base and rationale for the proposal and to enter into a meaningful discussion with the RFL along with other grassroots clubs to ensure any decision made has amateur clubs such as ours at the forefront.”

Cragg and Hemming closed: “If implemented, the RFL’s registration fee will have catastrophic implications on the future of Bank Quay Bulls; as such we would not support the introduction of this fee.”
Terry Everson, the long-serving Chairman of reigning National Conference League champions West Hull, is among those protesting.

He said: “The RFL’s decision to try to introduce annual charges to all amateur players, including children, and also to charge the volunteers who are the life blood of the amateur game is a fundamental change which was being made with very little consultation but with more of a `do as I say’ attitude.

“The lack of transparency does not inspire trust and there is no doubt that most of the grassroots clubs feel let down by the RFL, and fear for the future of the sport.”

He continued: “In recent years we have seen the side-lining of BARLA by the RFL and the growing of RFL involvement with a number of the amateur leagues. We now have the RFL wanting to deal directly with the parents of our junior members and with our senior players, and even with the volunteers, making substantial annual charges to everyone. There is no doubt that they intend to take this money at the expense of the amateur clubs, and this will result in more amateur clubs ceasing to exist. The reduction in the number of amateur open age teams in recent years is very alarming, but apparently not to the RFL who year after year report increasing numbers of participants.

“In the event of the annual charge appearing to be prohibitive we should consider whether the amateur leagues should operate through BARLA or another company, with advice being obtained from Sport England who surely would not be in agreement to annual charges being made by the RFL to the parents of children in deprived areas, as well as to all other players and even the volunteers without whom there would be no amateur Rugby League.”
He closed: “Sufficient thought is not being given to the mental health and welfare of the people involved. Does the RFL feel no shame?”

The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.