Grassroots rugby membership fee proposal sparks outrage

The Rugby Football League has sought to allay concerns expressed by a number of grassroots clubs and leagues over the governing body’s planned introduction of membership fees for all amateur players, coaches and volunteers.

It was revealed early last week that the RFL intends to charge open age players £25 per annum, and youth and juniors £20, from 2022 (put back a year because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic). The rationale is that with future support by Sport England for all sports believed to be uncertain other than for targeted support of new activity – particularly amongst under-represented groups – funding has to be obtained from elsewhere so work undertaken centrally can continue at the same levels as at present, and future growth supported.

Such services include safeguarding procedures and, over the past thirteen months, working with government and other authorities to facilitate grants to help clubs survive the Covid-19 pandemic. Administrative costs, and legal support for clubs, also come into the equation.

However, the development has not been universally well received at the grassroots. The RFL’s announcement followed, it is understood, consultations with four players – two from Pilkington Recs, one from Siddal and the other from a Southern Conference club. Pilkingtons later emailed players stating: “You and your parents will have received an email today with regards to Our League Active. This is a proposed membership scheme that the RFL are looking to introduce to raise funds for the governing body.
“Whilst this has been a rumour for a number of years, the implementation of it has come out of the blue over the last week and has been done without consultation with any clubs or leagues.”

The email continued: “The North West Leagues and ourselves are against the way in which the RFL are trying (to) enforce these memberships, and certainly against the costs of it. Based on the information available, the club would save in the region of £1,500 per year whilst raising almost over £7000 for the governing body. It is unclear at this moment in time what those funds are going to be used for. It should also be noted that any fee would be payable direct to the RFL in addition to any subscriptions already paid.
“Within the (RFL’s) email there is a request to complete a survey on what you would be willing to pay for your membership, however they do not give options to object or propose a lower cost. So please be mindful that you can select either of the three options or none at all. We would always encourage members to complete these types of surveys but want to ensure that you are aware of the opposition from ourselves and the North West Counties Leagues as we fight to keep the sport affordable for all.”

Pilkington’s John Rees posted on social media: “I could actually accept a membership if it was at a more modest level and there was a clear value to it for the player. But as it stands they are going to include liability insurance which is about £50 per junior team and then give free tickets away to games that they literally can’t give tickets away to.
“For our club they would raise about £7,000 from it, and the value back as far as I can see is £1,100 in insurance and maybe £2/£3 a player in administrative costs for Leaguenet etc.”

Another North West stalwart, Jason Seddon, posted: “According to senior representatives at the RFL, membership fees were never going to happen for players at grassroots level. I guess they must have forgotten they said that.”

On the other side of the country West Hull are similarly concerned. Chairman Terry Everson told League Express: “This appears to be madness and goes against the normal situation you find in different sports as sporting bodies are normally carefully look after their grass roots, not to use them as a substantial source of income.

“It is estimated that the cost of this to amateur clubs would probably be between £5,000 and £10,000 each (based upon our club usually having about 400 players and volunteers involved) while smaller clubs will have possibly an average of 200 players and volunteers.

“This could be the most stupid and most damaging action ever taken by a professional body and would, no doubt, result in many children, as well as volunteers being lost from the game as well as some of the amateur clubs.

“Publicity is required as well as reasoned debate as our sport is being played in many deprived areas.

“There has been very little, if any, consultation. I appreciate that it costs money to run the amateur game, but we already pay £200 for each new coach each year to attend compulsory coaching courses and there are other courses for which payment has to be made as well as substantial insurance costs.

“In the amateur game, subscriptions from players have always been for the benefit of their club. It does not appear to be at all fair to expect the players to have two subscriptions, to have to pay to be able to play the game and for the RFL to want the volunteers, who give their time freely to also be required to pay the RFL is mind boggling. Payments from amateur clubs should not be required to assist the professional body to meet its expenses. My idea of an acceptable annual charge, if any was required, would be for clubs to have to pay to their governing body something like £20 per club, not a four- or even five-figure amount.”

He closed: “I would suggest that if the RFL cannot run the amateur game without taking such substantial sums of money from each club they should not have worked so hard to try to eliminate BARLA.

“In the event of the RFL considering that the only way they can continue to administer the amateur game is to make the substantial charges being talked about, I would suggest that the administration of the amateur game should be passed back to the amateurs. It is of course a fact that exorbitant amounts of money have been simply wasted by the RFL and Super League, by them running two separate organisations and unnecessarily duplicating expenditure.”

Everson’s stance is echoed by a leading figure at another club in Hull, who has asked to remain anonymous. The correspondent said: “After a year of community clubs struggling with no rugby or income the RFL are proposing a charge for all registered players and volunteers…yes, charging volunteers who may give up the equivalent time to a full-time job.

“It looks a relatively small amount, but for participants who have struggled through Covid to then find additional money is a big ask. You might have a lad who plays open age and who coaches kids potentially having to pay twice and if he’s involved at his child’s team he could be paying for them as well….starts getting expensive.

“As an individual who has no longer got a child in the game and who purely volunteers to put something back this will probably make me walk away from the game, which is a shame after many years’ involvement. The knock-on effect is how it will impact on my club which, without being big headed, would be a massive loss to them both in knowledge and key weekly activity.”

Another posting stated: “All our coaches and staff are volunteers and give up their time to help. Our clubs already ask for subs from parents to help contribute to run the facility, plus some ask for a yearly registration cost, this on top would put volunteers and parents in a position where they can no longer carry on in the game they love because they can’t afford it. It seems to me all you are paying for is to get money off items/tickets which clubs in their general area already have, so I can’t see many parents or coaches being interested in this at all, and it would make it harder for the clubs as we are the ones who get all the hassle off them and have to answer the questions they ask!”

Yet another poster said: “The survey FAQs state that most other sports charge a membership but does not give any specifics to back this up. My child does two individual and one team sport (all non-RL) and does not pay a membership fee. Those sports that do charge are much lower values and have bona fide benefits attached to it. Let’s see a breakdown of the supposed costs and income required.

“At our club we charge £10 per month, this membership fee will effectively increase subs by almost 20 per cent and means we are unable to raise subs to cover increasing costs, leaving the club financially unsustainable. In my view this is being implemented to replace the lost Sky Try money, which didn’t find its way back to community clubs. An absolutely cowardly way to raise money in the aftermath of a pandemic.”

An official in the Heavy Woollen League, which is based in the Batley and Dewsbury area, said: “What is now urgently needed is a meeting of all member clubs, with RFL staff present to answer questions.

“That may be the only way to resolve this; the RFL hasn’t been honest, the way they have gone about the matter in a sneaky way has upset a lot of people and I believe it could cost my own club something like £10,000.”

The Rugby Football League’s Director of Participation and Development, Marc Lovering, told League Express: “We’ve had fantastic support over the years from Sport England.

However, Sport England’s thrust is primarily about getting people active, and there’s likely to be more focus from them in the future on supporting under-represented groups including female sport and such as physical disability sport and the like.

“Areas of all sports which are already well established will be expected to be self-sustaining; consequently funding will not be allocated to national governing bodies such as the RFL to support the important work we’ve been doing for many years to support and grow the game.”

He continued: “Membership fees will be mandatory from next year. We are, as part of the consultation process, looking at whether to charge membership fees to all sections of the sport, and we’ll react to feedback accordingly. Similarly, we weren’t intending to charge volunteers membership fees but one or two clubs, when consulted, suggested that volunteers could benefit and we’ve taken that on board, albeit membership for volunteers will be voluntary.”

Lovering stressed: “The issue of membership has been raised a number of times over the years. It has been discussed at Community Board for nearly a decade and it was referenced at the National Conference League meeting just prior to the first coronavirus lockdown, so there’s been nothing secretive about it. And we discussed it formally for the first time last December, with the Youth and Junior Leagues, before consulting a small number of clubs and players as part of the process. It’s almost as though the subject has been on the table for so long, with nothing being finalised, that it’s tended to slip off people’s radar. The notion pre-dated the demise of the Sky Try initiative which, in any case, involved funding being passed to Foundations for delivery rather than the RFL.”

Referring to deleted postings on the RFL’s ‘Our Learning Zone’, and the possibility of a public meeting at which the whole issue could be debated, he said: “‘Our Learning Zone’ is a platform designed to exchange ‘best practice’ information, not a social media forum, which is why they had to come down. Unfortunately it will obviously not be possible to hold a public meeting in the current climate; however we will be holding club webinars to continue what is an open and transparent consultation process.”

The RFL, meanwhile, is adamant that no one will be unable to take part in Rugby League activity because of genuine financial hardship. “We are looking at family packages, given a great deal of thought to the level of membership fees and we will look to support anyone, through their clubs, that cannot afford their fees,” Lovering concluded.

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.