What now? Clubs brace for the repercussions of coronavirus lockdown

It was the news everyone feared, but everyone had already accepted.

On Monday, rugby league ground to a halt as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The Rugby Football League confirmed all activity was suspended for a minimum of two weekends.

Now, clubs up and down the country are coming to terms with the implications of lost revenue and no activity for a period of time that looks set to extend far beyond the current April 3rd date set.

And therein lies one of the biggest problems facing clubs right now – the mere uncertainty surrounding the length of inactivity facing the sport.

“The big worry is not knowing how long it’s going to last for,” says Featherstone Rovers chairman Mark Campbell.

“I think you’re just wasting your time thinking about anything like that at the moment. I think the energy and work should go into cutting costs, making sure we still have a club, let alone planning for a Grand Final. We’ve just got to concentrate on keeping our businesses afloat.”

Some clubs have already put actions into place. Within 24 hours of the RFL announcing the suspension of the season, Halifax contacted all club employees, from players through to office staff, to ask them to take a pay cut. They unanimously agreed. Other clubs are set to follow their lead.

“Tough times need tough measures,” said the club’s managing director, Dave Grayson.

“We’ve had to ask all the staff, not just players, to take a temporary drop and they have been unanimous in agreeing to do that.

“There is no shame in that. Other clubs will roll that out too.

“My style of management is pro-active rather than reactive. We’ve put together a business continuity plan and a Coronavirus Action Plan Team.

“That was set up about 10 days ago in readiness and I’ve activated that now. The action plan team is our top people within this club, so there’s the Board of Directors, Ian Croad, Sarah Morgan, Steve Bonfield, who is a practising solicitor, he’s our club secretary, Steve Lambert, an ex-director of the club back in the day, is helping too, and Ken Jones. On top of that, there are co-opts, Michael Steel, David Durbin, Lee Kenny and Nathan Field, they’re available as well.”

Most clubs share a similar view; that clubs are OK for now, but any extended period will result in dire repercussions.

“At the moment you’d probably say most clubs are OK in the short-term,” says Oldham’s Chris Hamilton.

“Any extended period without matches and the majority of a club’s income will have a profound effect on them being able to keep going and covering their liabilities.”

At other clubs, such as Dewsbury, they are feeling the effects far beyond the absence of gate receipts.

“All the income streams we have are at a total halt,” says chairman Mark Sawyer.

“For example, the function rooms are closing down, the use of the all-weather has stopped because people can’t be organising football games and what have you. Everyone has come to a total dead halt. As each and every day goes on it’s becoming more and more difficult.”

There is a beacon of hope in the shape of the RFL, who are lobbying a document together to send to the government in the hope of receiving some financial relief for the clubs during these testing times. The government has pledged £330 billion to small businesses who are set to feel the effects of the pandemic.

“The decider is what the government does,” Sawyer says.

“The RFL is acting on behalf of ourselves. They’re looking for a package of money that is required to keep rugby league going. What that package is I don’t honestly know, they’ve come up with a figure they think is needed to keep the game on its feet.”

“They’re saying from a finance point of view there’s no direct help from the RFL above what we’re already getting,” Grayson adds.

“But they are piecing together a lot of work with the government to get funding for the clubs. They asked us a couple of days back to get PAYE, VAT, and so on. They did that with all the clubs, they’re going to utilise that with their leverage for compensation and dispensation.”

All four men remain hopeful of the RFL delivering a decent result to help clubs get by. But all four are unanimous on another the severity of the matter. To put it simply, clubs must act now to secure their existence.

“It’s a bleak outlook,” Sawyer says.

“It’s looking as if it’s going to go right into the middle of summer. It’s a long period to get from A to B when you’re not trading, in reality. The side incomes aren’t going to be happening, so the club won’t be bringing at least some money in.

“There are a lot of glum faces about but what the clubs need to worry about is the right decisions.”

“Everyone has to act now,” Campbell adds.

“I’d rather act now to safeguard our club than bury our heads in the sand for the month because we’ve got the money to pay the wages. I’d rather put something in place so we know we’re at least going to be here in four months, then we can do some more planning and more work and hopefully by then there’s some light at the end of the tunnel so we can get to the end of the year.

“Our budgets are based on the lowest crowd and income, but obviously you don’t plan for nothing, so now we’ve got to look at making that shortfall up. There will be other clubs a lot worse off than us that have stuck their neck out to get that promotion place. You hope if that gets taken away that those clubs aren’t going pull the rug away.”

Hamilton is keen to raise the need to work together.

“There’s a great sense of needing to stick together, that we’re all in it together despite the fact these are worrying times.

“The biggest issue is that nobody actually knows what is going to happen because we’ve never been in this position before thank goodness.

“Everyone has a responsibility to its staff and players, but then in terms of sponsors and fans to be a little bit of a beacon. Each club will have its own message, I think we’ve all also got to be a bit of a beacon to the community to try and keep them going.

“We’ve got wages due a week on Friday which won’t be an issue, but then again, depending on what happens moving forward, it’s possible we have to look at alternatives.”

Grayson adds: “It would be remiss of us to put our head in the sand and hope it goes away. It’s how long we can survive, that’s the key bit. The worst case is you get to a point you’re insolvent. We’re nowhere near that, at the minute we’re up-to-date and bang on, but we certainly can’t go on indefinitely. The club is run as a business and as a result, has to trade its way through this.”