Coronavirus: How rugby league is coping with the impact
By Marc Bazeley
Last Updated: 19/03/20 6:04am
Like nearly every other sport in the UK, rugby league is facing uncertain times during the coronavirus outbreak.
This week, the decision was taken by Super League and the RFL to put the season on hold at all levels until April 3 at the earliest, although in Australia the NRL have decided to continue playing behind closed doors.
Here, we take a look at the effects of the shutdown, and how clubs, governing bodies and competition organisers are working to mitigate concerns which have arisen...
Super League clubs braced for financial hit
Along with keeping their players and staff safe, a major concern for Super League clubs is the financial impact of a prolonged shutdown.
As with other sports, they are reliant on match-day revenue through ticket sales, corporate hospitality and sponsorship, not to mention retail, food and drink sales.
While playing behind closed doors would alleviate the fixture backlog of numerous postponements, it does not solve the issue of dwindling revenue as Salford Red Devils chief executive Ian Blease explained.
"We, as a club, are worried about the lack of income," Blease told Sky Sports News. "That's down to working with our partners and our broadcasters to see what we can do on that.
"[Playing behind closed doors is] not off the table, but think it would be really difficult for the club to survive if we did do that."
It is not just a loss matchday revenues which will affect club incomes though, with many utilising their home grounds for things such as conferencing and concerts outside of home games.
Hull Kingston Rovers are due to host three concerts this year which are projected to earn them at least £250,000 if they were to go ahead and chairman Neil Hudgell expects most Super League clubs to be facing a shortfall of around £1m this year.
"Whether you play poorly and get 7,000 or play well and get 9,000, you are getting income," Hudgell said. "If you're not playing games you get zero income.
My guess is most clubs will have at least a million-pound hole by the end of the season
Hull KR chairman Neil Hudgell
"As a direct illustration of that we will lose up to £150,000 cash flow for not playing Hull FC on Good Friday. That is just one example in itself. Each club has particular circumstances.
"My guess is most clubs will have at least a million-pound hole by the end of the season.
"Regardless of what costs we can trim, they are only going to scratch the surface of what that hole we will be left with will be."
'This could be catastrophic for a number of clubs'
Any loss of revenue caused by an extended suspension of the season is likely to be even more widely felt by those clubs in the Championship and League One, where budgets are particularly tight.
Steve Neale, chairman of League One club Barrow Raiders, believes the weeks off during the season and player contracts running from December to November mean they would be able to ride out the stoppage going beyond April and the current campaign being extended.
However, he recognises sponsors and supporters will feel the pinch just as much due to the disruption to their livelihoods as well, which will in turn have a knock-on effect for the clubs.
"It is no exaggeration that this could be catastrophic for a number of clubs, including ourselves," Neale wrote in his weekly column for Barrow's The Mail newspaper.
"The secondary impact to the club would be through sponsorship, lack of events and bar use and our community programme.
"There may be some government help in terms of interest-free loans but this could leave us in debt for years. Inevitably, players and staff become affected as our disposable income reduces."
Any lengthy suspension of matches or extension of the season beyond the Super League Grand Final on October 10 will impact the RFL's plans too, with the Challenge Cup final at Wembley scheduled for July 18 and England having a three-Test series against Australia lined up in the autumn.
However, the governing body's chief executive Ralph Rimmer has vowed they will support all clubs to find a way through.
"Everybody is under a degree of stress, but I would make us no different to any other sport - or even any other business in this country at this moment in time," Rimmer told Sky Sports News.
We've demonstrated over the last 125 years we are a resilient sport, we do stick together in times of trouble and I'm sure that we will now
RFL chief executive Ralph Rimmer
"We are here to help the clubs navigate through these waters, the government understands our position and importance to the communities which we work in and support, and we'll find a way through it.
"We've demonstrated over the last 125 years we are a resilient sport, we do stick together in times of trouble and I'm sure that we will now."
World Cup preparations affected
The start of the 2021 Rugby League World Cup is around 20 months away, but the coronavirus outbreak is still disrupting planning for the tournament.
The tournament's legacy programme has slowed down, while talks with commercial sponsors, travel arrangements and recruitment are all affected too. The date for tickets going on sale is set to be put back from July as well.
Jon Dutton, the tournament's chief executive, is in regular contact with colleagues across other sports as well, including co-ordinating with the Football Association following this year's European Championships being postponed and the effects on the 2021 women's Euros in England.
"We've formed a very good relationship with the FA around existing plans for the European Championships and next year's Women's European Championship," Dutton told Sky Sports.
"Everything in the domestic game has an impact on the international game, so it will take time for the true impact to filter through, but it's really uncertain times. People want certainty in their daily life, but also to plan ahead."
Dutton is still confident the tournament will be able to go ahead on time though and has reason to be optimistic it will prove a success off the pitch as well as on it.
We've got some ambitious targets in terms of ticket sales and attracting a new audience, and hopefully none of that will change
RLWC2021 chief executive Jon Dutton
"Undoubtedly, as we get through this, people will want things to look forward to," Dutton said. "Sport is such a large part of people's lives and major events are what bring the community together.
"We hope that doesn't change, that the World Cup in 2021 is something every rugby league fan can look forward to and also every sports fan.
"We've got some ambitious targets in terms of ticket sales and attracting a new audience, and hopefully none of that will change."