As the rest of the sporting world shuts down, rugby league is – for now at least – still open for business. In Super League, Salford defeated Wigan on Friday night while Castleford are due to play St Helens on Sunday when there are also five Challenge Cup fifth-round ties scheduled.
Yet it seems inevitable that at some stage, a sport that has defied its major rivals will have to adapt to the threat of coronavirus, meaning the prospect of either postponing a season that is seven weeks old or playing games behind closed doors.
The Rugby Football League will almost certainly be prompted into making that decision in the coming week but for a game hardly awash with riches both options are a terrifying thought for many clubs throughout the pyramid. From the elite level of Super League down to the semi-professional ranks, whatever happens next could change the sport’s financial outlook forever.
It is a point not lost on the Wakefield chief executive, Michael Carter. “I dread to think about what going behind closed doors might do,” he says. “If we would have to do that just once, I estimate we’d be looking at a hit of around £60,000. That’s totally unaccounted for and it’s an extraordinary sum of money for a club in this sport. The consequences elsewhere would be astronomical, I fear.”
Many clubs outside Super League – where the funding given to clubs can often be around a 10th of that given to top-flight sides – are already struggling to make ends meet. In League 1, the third tier, Rochdale are trying to rebuild after relegation from the Championship and a subsequent takeover, led by the former Swinton chairman Andy Mazey.
It is at this level where you fear clubs may possibly never recover. One club owner, who did not wish to be named, says: “I think this could drive clubs to the wall in terms of going bust were we made to play behind closed doors for a prolonged period.” Mazey shares those fears.
“We’ve done a budget in the takeover which gets the club back on an even keel and gate income is a massive part of that,” he says. “I wouldn’t go as far to say it would be devastating for us but it would certainly leave a huge hole. We just do not have the cash resources that football and other sports do. For some clubs, losing a couple of home games could cripple them.”
There are also fears that going behind closed doors could cost clubs more in the way of season-ticket holders demanding money back. For many clubs, the sensible decision is following the rest of sport and postponing the season for a number of weeks.
Salford’s chief executive, Ian Blease, says: “This could jeopardise cashflow like you wouldn’t believe. I think the best option is to defer games, but how long do you do that for? Some clubs are gone if we stop playing for a long time. They’re putting the shutters up and telling the tax man they can’t do anything.
“One lost home game for us could cost around £70,000 and everyone suffers. The stadium, the catering company, the car park operators, the pubs … it’s a terrifying thought.”
Lower-league clubs would lose less than Salford or Wakefield but, due to the scaled-down numbers at that level of the sport, they would almost certainly miss out on a bigger percentage of their projected annual income. “The impact of this filtering down the leagues would be even bigger than to Super League clubs,” Carter says.
For now, it is business as usual, but soon enough a decision may be taken out of the sport’s hand that could reshape its future forever.