Talking Grass Roots: Old sores reopen over amateur fees battle

Matters are, I think, coming to a head regarding the Rugby Football League’s bid to impose membership fees on amateur players from next year.

I’m getting some interesting correspondence on the subject, notably last week from a leading figure at club level who believes that the RFL’s plans have been prompted by a financial position he describes as “disturbing.”

The long-serving stalwart, who has requested anonymity, said: “Having seen various news stories of financial difficulties concerning the RFL, I decided to obtain copies of the financial accounts of the RFL and of Super League.

“The last accounts filed for each of the two companies relate to the year ended 31 December 2019. In view of the latest reported RFL venture which has apparently not produced any significant benefit but has left a further sum outstanding which may amount to £750,000, it appears that the RFL does have financial difficulties.

“As at 31 December 2019 the RFL had no net assets and had a deficit of £3.2 million. While we have no knowledge as to the results for the year ended 31 December 2020, the latest loss of about £750,000 could mean that the RFL has a total net deficit of about £4,000,000.”

Calling for a full debate involving the RFL, leagues and clubs he concluded: “It appears to me that the RFL is trying to create a new source of income from the amateurs to compensate for previous avoidable financial losses. This is simply not fair or reasonable and not advisable in view of the likely consequences.”

Those consequences, as others have stated in the last two or three weeks, could be the loss of players and volunteers, given that Rugby League is often played in what are described as “deprived” areas. In fairness to the RFL, the concept of membership fees is nothing new, going back as it does a decade or so. And, as I recently reported, the RFL is willing to help players, coaches or volunteers who struggle to meet their fees (there could be plenty of such claims presented, I suspect).

Somehow or other a full debate has to be held, as the widespread feeling at the grassroots is, rightly or wrongly, that the RFL has gone through its survey process in a clandestine manner (an accusation that the game’s governing body would certainly refute).

Talking of governing bodies, time was when amateur clubs viewed the British Amateur Rugby League Association, and not the Rugby Football League, as their ruling organisation. A civil war raged between BARLA and the RFL for many years over access to Sport England and other finance and also very importantly, the Youth and Junior game. It was my less than happy lot to report on the many bruising battles between the two organisations, to the point that I almost came to view myself more as a political journalist than as a sports writer.

They were stormy times and I have to say that as the years passed, and in the light of ongoing experience, I came to believe that BARLA should have been allowed to run the amateur game, focusing on increasing player numbers, with the RFL and professional clubs working on improving the quality of those players.

In the end, the RFL won the war, Sport England insisting that future funding would only be forthcoming if unification, under the auspices of the Rugby Football League, was achieved (interestingly, a regular but anonymous caller, who claimed to be conducting investigative work when he used to ring me up a year or two ago, alleged that that was simply not the case – I don’t know about that, I’m sure I checked it out with Sport England at the time).

Anyway, unification came to pass, with many in the amateur camp lamenting that they had had “a gun held to their heads.” I wasn’t best pleased about grassroots Rugby League being run by the RFL but readers may recall that I was prompted to reflect earlier this year on how well the folk at Red Hall had dealt with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. They are still very much on top of that particular issue, and everyone in amateur Rugby League should be grateful – I doubt very much that BARLA would have coped as well, although we’ll never really know, will we?

Sadly, however, all that excellent work is now in danger of being undermined. There are signs of a revolt at amateur level, a revolt (or perhaps more accurately a cry for help) that could do with co-ordinating.

Who better to handle that than BARLA, which is still in existence but which has been very quiet during the pandemic, apart from providing free footage of top games of recent years?

I’d like to think that the Association can now step forward, if only as a mediator, to help reconcile and hopefully resolve the membership fees spat, which is threatening to bring down the entire sport in this country (and that’s no exaggeration – if players and volunteers walk away clubs will cease to exist, and the production line of players and coaches for all levels of the domestic game will dry up). Indeed I’ve no doubt that there are plenty at the grassroots who would welcome a return to the days when they operated under BARLA’s jurisdiction.

I wonder whether any such moves (or, perhaps, plans to form a new governing body for the amateur game) are in fact afoot?

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.