The Breakdown | Rugby needs to re-engage with supporters it has taken for granted | Sport

Bill Shankly once remarked: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” It is often quoted but, at a time when the world is battling to control a virus that has taken the lives of more than 100,000, it has never been more inapt.

Heroes at a time of lockdown are not to be found on fields, courses or empty grounds but in hospitals, care homes, supermarkets, warehouses, or behind the wheel, risking their health, and lives, for a salary that takes the best-paid footballers in Britain a morning to earn.

When life returns to, not what it was, but a time when the fear of an unseen enemy has gone – which will be when a vaccine is available – sport will be one of the many businesses picking up the pieces. In rugby, unions and clubs have been hit hard financially, with Australia having to make the most drastic cutbacks.

Laurent Marti, the president of Bordeaux-Bègles, said this week: “We have to save French rugby, 80% of a club’s expenditure is player salaries.” That explains a problem for clubs in England and France: as income has steadily risen over the years, the gains have tended to be reflected in the salaries of players, with clubs effectively no better off than they were 20 years ago.

Facilities have improved, but largely through borrowing. No club has been able to build up any reserves, which is why the effect of the lockdown was felt immediately as income all but dried up. There are three main strands to a club’s turnover: television, sponsorship and attendances. All three will need to be rebuilt.

Premier League football clubs may discover that the golden eggs laid by television will contain less precious metal in future, but the medium will remain reliant on a sport that is a driver for subscriptions. A question is, how many who currently pay will stop, either because their financial circumstances have changed or because they no longer think it is worth it? As one person said this week, after recovering from the virus, what seemed important before doesn’t now.

The sponsorship market is likely to take a hit, which will affect unions as well as clubs. Corporate packages will become a harder sell as companies cut their marketing budgets and sport becomes seen by many as a no-longer-affordable luxury. With Premiership clubs giving up 27% of their central income to CVC, in return for £12.5m each last year which most used more to mop up debts than invest, the squeeze will be tight, with one forecaster predicting the UK economy could shrink by 35% by June.

Which leaves the supporters, loyal followers passing through the turnstiles who were largely taken for granted. How many clubs used their increased turnover to subsidise admission prices (other than for matches they were taking to bigger grounds like Twickenham or Wembley) or slow the frequency that kits changed?

Rugby will need to re-engage with paying supporters, if not to the extent of football whose lavishly paid players have held firm against pay cuts, agreeing only to deferrals, despite recent weeks showing that football’s model, where wages are generally far too high as a percentage of turnover, is unsustainable.

They have come up with various arguments about pay cuts, including one where the exchequer would suffer, as if none of them has ever considered a tax avoidance scheme. Unlike rugby players, who are showing realism and responsibility, they are standing apart from those who pay to watch them, heroes no more.

Season-ticket renewal will not be made without pause for thought. The question is not whether paying £1,300 for 26 matches at the Emirates Stadium represents value for money but whether it is time to take a stand against a sport that despite massive revenue gains – Arsenal’s annual turnover is £396m – demands more and more from fans: clubs now have three kits rather than two and change every season rather than every 24 months, for example.

Rugby is not there yet, but will unions still find a market for tickets priced well into three figures for international matches? The assumption seems to be that when the action resumes everything will pick up again, but one epidemiologist predicted this week that he did not see fans being able to go to sports events until a vaccine exists for coronavirus, which could be a year or more away.

And, anyway, a number of supporters are likely to want to keep their distance for some time after the restrictions are lifted, with fears of a second Covid-19 outbreak. The longer they go without watching sport the greater the danger of them breaking the habit, never mind the financial question.

The time off gives unions and clubs the chance to look at the way they operate. It is clear to those involved in the club game that it has to break the reliance on the backing of individuals, something the CVC deal was intended to address, and start living within budget.

It would mean lowering the salary cap and trimming squads, ditching the Premiership Cup perhaps, and shortening the season. And considering whether the England squad should be contracted by the RFU while registered with clubs. That prospect would be anathema to owners who have invested hundreds of millions of pounds to elevate the club game, but this is a period when dreams must give way to reality.

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World Rugby rivalry

The election this month of World Rugby’s chairman was expected to be a coronation for the incumbent, Sir Bill Beaumont, but it has turned into a scramble for votes with Agustín Pichot putting his name forward.

Pichot, the vice-chairman – whose position will go to the French Rugby Federation president, Bernard Laporte, who is standing on a joint-ticket with Beaumont – wants the world game to become more democratic and less exclusive.

The battle is being seen as one between the conservative and the moderniser, but that fails to account for Beaumont carrying on the reforms carried out under his predecessor, Bernard Lapasset, which acknowledged the growing ambition of countries below those in the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship.

It was Beaumont who was behind the nations championship proposed by World Rugby last year which would have offered tier two and tier three nations a path to the top. The idea was buried by some of his old chums on the Six Nations but he has not given up on it.

Beaumont has promised an independent review into the way World Rugby is run. Despite various changes to the voting structure, it remains an organisation that handcuffs its executives whose power lies in recommending rather than being proactive. Twenty-five years into the professional era, it retains the whiff of the amateur days.

Pichot has brought ideas and passion to the vice-chairmanship, driving through the extension in the residential eligibility period for Test rugby, and the essential difference between the two lies in the pace of change.

At a time of crisis, Beaumont’s firm and steady leadership, looking to reform through persuasion rather than through the media, is what the game needs. Pichot’s time will come, but it should not be now.

Still want more?

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Will Hooley says Covid-19 has turned players’ lives upside down but explains why rugby was already in fragile state.

Donald McRae interviewed Ian McKinley, the Treviso and Italy fly-half who has fought back from losing sight in one eye, to discuss the profound impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on his home town, Udine.

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