The leading thinktank Onward has called on the government to encourage fans to take a financial stake in rugby and football clubs in order to create sustainability and offer greater protection during times of crisis. The recommendation is included in a report called A Sporting Chance, which focuses on how professional football below Premier League level, cricket and the two codes of rugby are coping during the coronavirus pandemic.

Will Tanner, Onward’s director, said: “A number of clubs are already facing severe financial difficulty and if the distancing and gathering restrictions continue into next season, we will see large numbers of clubs collapse and many towns lose the cultural heritage sports clubs represent.”

Tanner, who was the deputy head of the policy unit in Theresa May’s Conservative government, continued: “There are social as well as economic reasons for the government to take steps to safeguard those institutions for thousands of fans and communities that rely on clubs. We have good relationships with people in the government and we have spoken to some of them about our recommendations.

“A number of us have worked in government and so we have focused on practical ideas ministers can take up quickly, such as assigning stadia as assets of community value which could not be sold off by an owner in the event of a club collapsing. The financial issues facing sports like rugby need to be taken seriously.”

Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has launched a drive against obesity, which Tanner believes should lead to investment in sport. “Government guidance [in England] is aimed at getting people active again through cycling, walking and the like so people can build resistance to the virus itself,” he said. “It will be a huge policy driver in the coming months, which is why it is important to ensure that clubs remain in business.

“What our research showed was that it is difficult for fans to get detailed information on how their clubs are run. The accounts of many are opaque and most rugby clubs rely on benefactors rather than sustainable business models. Fans invest a lot emotionally every week and pay increasing prices on the gate. There should be greater responsibility to them.”

The report points out that clubs in Germany’s Bundesliga for the most part have to be at least 50% owned by members, with the average ticket price far lower than it is in the Premier League where, as in club rugby in England, increases in television and sponsorship income have tended to be passed on to players and agents.

“This is about transparency, accountability and governance,” said Tanner. “We recommend greater fan ownership and involvement in the running of clubs, football and rugby. We want the government to encourage that and in its manifesto it included the promise of a £150m community ownership fund.”

Premiership rugby union clubs are hoping to complete the season that was suspended after 13 rounds, leaving nine to go along with two play-off weekends and the knockout stages of the two European cups. The intention is to resume in July, but players have to be convinced it will be safe for them to restart contact training.

Clubs are anxious to start playing again because their income has reduced to a trickle during lockdown due to a lack of gate receipts and central funding, and the fear is that a second wave of the virus would have an impact on next season.

“The government’s approach so far has been to give a loan to rugby league because there was an existential risk to a sport that had only just started its season,” said Tanner. “Union is different because although very few clubs are profitable, none looks unviable at this moment. I think the government will look to existing schemes to support those most at risk rather than underwrite the whole sport.

“A second wave of the virus would be a different ball game. All businesses would face a much greater challenge and recovery would become an order of magnitude. It would need a much different government response because drastic action would be needed to save all manner of concerns, including clubs.”

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He added: “Clubs need to find a different way of running their businesses and, with revenues reduced, they are unlikely to be willing to pay such high salaries. As the crisis is happening all over the world, the competitive pressures that have driven up wages will be tempered and that will help rugby move to a more sustainable model.

“What is clear already is that ministers should take immediate action to protect sports clubs that are the pride of many communities and which will be needed to bring the country back together again once this pandemic is over.”

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