Plenty has been written about the plight of Super League players and clubs, but what is at stake in the Championship, rugby league’s second tier? With no TV deal, most Championship clubs are relying on matchday revenue, sponsorship and central funding from the RFL, which is split fairly evenly. With the biggest clubs attracting almost 10 times as many fans as the smallest, there is a huge disparity in finances in the division.
Before coronavirus swept across the world, I spoke to Championship players and coaches about the finances at their clubs and what they thought was happening elsewhere. There was an overwhelming consensus that Leigh are spending the most on player wages. The club recruited a string of established Super League players last winter and everyone I canvassed – apart from the respondent from Leigh – thought they were the biggest spenders in the Championship.
Again, there was near consensus that Toulouse and London Broncos make up the top three. All three clubs have reportedly close to £1m in recent seasons to win promotion to the Super League. There is little doubt among those in the know that Featherstone are at least fourth-highest spenders, with a wage bill believed to be over £500,000. These are the haves.
Everyone who responded thought the two clubs promoted last year, Whitehaven and Oldham, are the lowest spenders, with Swinton, Dewsbury or Batley also near the bottom. They are the have nots.
Across the board, Championship clubs are gambling heavily on star players delivering the goods. Every club is investing huge proportions of their budget on a handful of players – and they need them to perform. The highest paid at each club seems to be paid almost 10% of the total playing budget. Leigh’s top earner is believed to be on £70,000 plus bonuses; Featherstone’s gets £50,000; Halifax’s £25,000, Dewsbury’s £20,000, Swinton’s £18,000, Batley’s £15,000. These players could be most at risk after the pandemic: off-loading their big salaries would give owners some breathing space.
The line between full-time and part-time operations is not black and white. Instead, it has more shades of grey than a Widnes skyline. Leigh have 15 full-time players; the rest of the squad have jobs. Toulouse have a similar set-up. Leigh, however, have invested in far more full-time staff than Toulouse. Featherstone have 10 players and five staff working solely for the club. The only players working full-time for Halifax also coach in the community. Everyone at Swinton, Dewsbury and Batley is part-time.
Whether they are part-time or full-time, every player said they trained either three or four times a week. Dewsbury pack field, gym, wrestling and analysis into all three of their two-and-a-half-hour sessions each week. A full-time club who play Sunday, have Mondays off to recover and maybe take Thursday off too, will still only train on four days. The difference is their players do not arrive at training exhausted by work.
The Championship requires a huge commitment from part-time players. Young or fringe players are certainly not in it for the money. “There are a couple of players who may be on pay-as-you-play contracts,” said a centre from a mid-table side. “Our youngsters are – and they only get £200 a game.” The standard appearance fee seems to be £100 plus result-based bonuses. Smaller clubs seem to pay either £200 or £250 per win. Some players at the Championship’s poorest clubs are guaranteed just £1,000 a year from rugby.
Yet it’s clear why some experienced players choose to be a part-time star in the second tier rather than an also-ran in the Super League. Yes, Super League clubs can spend around £2m a year, but with their stars on substantial six-figure salaries, that leaves plenty of lower profile players on £40,000 or considerably less. With two salaries combined, a respected semi-professional player with a solid day job could be considerably better off than his peers at both work and rugby. Of course, it comes at a personal cost. Family time is scarce, social lives almost cease and you hobble into work on Monday mornings.
“Most players are on yearly contracts,” explained a half-back now at his second Championship club. “Personally, I prefer to sign year-long deals as it gives me a lot more flexibility in terms of what I want to do with my life and work,” a theme repeated across the division. “Most players are on a salary, topped up with bonuses for appearances, winning and the number of games they play.”
With income from matches stopped, players and coaches at almost every Championship club have been furloughed, but being on vastly lower wages than their Super League counterparts means most are still being paid in full, with their clubs topping up the government’s 80% contribution. Logic suggests that with little or no revenue at the moment, clubs with wage bills of £200,000 are going to be in less trouble than those whose outgoings on players alone might be four or five times that.
With many clubs dependent on volunteers to operate and the majority of players having an alternative income stream – albeit via government bail-outs – smaller clubs and players may survive this lockdown rather better than the game’s elite.
Clubcall: Hereford Harriers
Herefordshire has never hosted professional rugby league but it will have a Championship 1 team when sport resumes. Hereford Harriers are newcomers to the third tier of Wheelchair Rugby League, which announced a tremendously far-reaching line-up just before the pandemic hit. Newcomers in the Wheelchair RL Super League include the rather contrasting Hull FC and Leyland Warriors, while Wales now has four teams as Celts Crusaders and Ebbw Rollers have joined the Championship. As well as traditional league strongholds, alongside Hereford in League 1 are Dundee Dragons, while Bedford Tigers and Medway’s Woodlands Warriors join the might of St Helens and Wakefield Trinity in a new Development League.
Spare a thought for French third division side Réalmont XIII. Having already knocked two second-tier clubs out of France’s Lord Derby Cup, the Tarn village team were due to host another – Villegailhenc-Aragon XIII – in the quarter-finals in late March. Many of Réalmont’s 3,000 residents – which include Toulouse Olympique coach and local farmer Sylvain Houles – were expected at Stade Claude André to see Les Griffons take on a VARL side run by former St Helens and Warrington utility man Vinnie Anderson and featuring the former Leigh centre Tyrone Pau. Let’s hope Réalmont still get their day in the sun. An Elite 1 opponent awaits the winners in the semi-final.
Eighty years ago, football stopped but rugby league found a way to carry on. Writing in League Express, Professor Tony Collins explained that when war broke out in September 1939, the government wanted sport to continue. So, despite many players and fans joining the armed forces – who had taken over several grounds – restricted crowd sizes, a ban on travel over 50 miles, and blackouts after dark, rugby league did.
The RFL cut players’ wages to 10 shillings per match (£33 today), leading to a strike led by Huddersfield captain Alec Fiddes. His fellow Scotsman, RFL secretary John Wilson, offered to take a pay cut. The RFL buckled and agreed to £1 per player (£66) with a bonus five shillings (£16) for away games to “far-flung” Hull and Barrow, which was somehow considered essential travel!
Bradford beat Swinton to the title and in the summer of 1940 the Ministry of Labour were so keen for the game to continue that the RFL increased payments to 25 shillings (£70) per match. But by 1943 half the clubs had closed down and others were in financial strife.
Fifth and last
Whatever happens this time, the game will continue to be passed on through the generations. In the current issue of Rugby League Journal, editor Harry Edgar writes a lovely tale about former Great Britain manager Roland Davis, who, if he sees a game this season, will have watched rugby league in 10 decades. Davis saw his first game in December 1939, met original 1910 Lions tourist Billy Batten, was among the 102,000 at Odsal in 1954, and in Sydney in 1972 when Great Britain last won the Ashes. During the war he saw Wattie Davies, who won the very first Challenge Cup with Batley in 1897, signing autographs.
So a young child who knows Roland Davis now will be able to watch the 2097 Challenge Cup final and tell his or her grandkids that they once knew a man who had met a man who played in the very first one, 200 years earlier!