RFL moves towards a return behind closed doors

Rugby League is coming to terms with the increasing prospect of playing games behind closed doors, despite a reluctance across the sport to do so.

League Express has obtained a document sent out by RFL chief executive Ralph Rimmer to Council members explaining that there may be no choice but to play in empty stadiums to ensure that the game can fulfil its obligation to Sky, who provide vital funding through its broadcast deal.

Rimmer outlined four key phases for Rugby League as it attempts to return to normality. They are:
1. Players being permitted to return to training
2. Games permitted to be played behind closed doors
3. Broadcast/commercialisation of games played behind closed doors
4. Games being played with fans inside the stadium

Developments over the weekend suggest that the fourth phase is some months away, while the other three could occur much sooner.

Reports emerged that football’s Premier League could return in a matter of weeks, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson keen for professional sport to return in order to boost the nation’s morale.

But England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned that social distancing measures would most likely have to remain in place until the end of the year, leaving the prospect of games in front of supporters highly unlikely for the remainder of the season.

That has left clubs having to accept playing behind closed doors is almost inevitable, despite many having objections due to the loss of revenue they’ll suffer as a result.

However, in his address to clubs, community board and other Council members, Rimmer said the RFL must explore its options.

“Throughout our discussions, we have remained absolutely clear that games behind closed doors are not the preference for clubs or the RFL (or SLE) as we all rely on ticket revenues; however, it is one of the key ways sports can meet their broadcast commitments and continue the season.

“The Secretary of State, DCMS has this week explained that this work (to help sport be ready for a relaxation in some restrictions) is happening on a ‘without prejudice basis’ i.e. it can change as circumstances change. He stressed that these are constructive discussions to ensure all the practicalities are covered. The decision-making forum is the Government’s COBRA committee.

“Clearly any return to training or BCD matches will be done in consultation with stakeholders. We are in dialogue with SLE regarding the considerations that need to be taken into account in relation to Super League clubs and matches. In the next few days, we will be arranging a call with Championship and League 1 clubs to discuss the equivalent for those competitions.”

Super League is thought to be in regular conversation with Sky as they plot how to best deliver the competition once it returns, while the RFL is working with the government on restrictions, as well as their continued attempts to receive government funding.

There is a hope that funding could arrive this week.

An RFL spokesperson said: “The RFL has attended a number of meetings with other sports and Government looking into the wide range of issues surrounding the return of sport behind closed doors, whenever the public health situation allows.

“We are ensuring the views of our clubs are represented, and that the clubs are kept up to date with the progress of the discussions.”