Super League clubs set to survive 2020 but concerns over future remain

THERE has been a mixed reaction to a rebate agreement over this season’s television revenues – Hull KR owner Neil Hudgell describing it as “premature” but Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington labelling it “very helpful” amid ongoing financial uncertainty.

Picture by Allan McKenzie/ - 05/03/2020 - Rugby League - Betfred Super League - Leeds Rhinos v Toronto Wolfpack - Emerald Headingley Stadium, Leeds, England - Toronto's dejection shows as Leeds's Mikolaj Oledzki is congratulated by Callum McLelland on his try.

Super League, the Rugby Football League and Sky Sports yesterday confirmed they had reached a settlement over the 2020 broadcast monies in light of coronavirus wreaking such havoc on the television schedule.

It was decided clubs will receive their money in full for this season with the broadcaster taking a rebate – understood to be around £280,000 per club – next year.

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Clubs presently receive around £2m per season from Sky with their current deal expiring at the end of 2021.

The global pandemic shut the sport down in mid-March and it is unlikely to resume again until August at the earliest with a probable shortened season.

Although it is understood no contractual obligations have yet actually been broken, it is believed nine of the 11 clubs (Toronto Wolfpack do not receive any such central funds) were in favour of the agreement.

Nevertheless, Hudgell told The Yorkshire Post: “I wasn’t supportive of any rebate at this stage.

“It leaves a massive (financial) impact on next year and – however you dress it up – it’s another significant strain on the financial viability of our club.

The Funeral of Rugby Legend Roger Millward, at St Marys Church, Kippax. Hull KR Chairman Neil Hudgell..31st May 2016 ..Picture by Simon Hulme

“It’s another major hit to cashflow and I think the whole thing is premature.

“But the collective will was supportive, so, with the democratic process, that prevailed.”

It is understood rugby league is the first sport the broadcaster has reached such an agreement with.

Granted, Sky could have tried recouping their losses this year which would have left worried clubs – already in dire straits due to no games in three months – in severe trouble. That is why Hetherington was grateful of the support shown by the sport’s long-term main broadcaster.

Hull Kr v Hull FC. Hull FC owner Adam Pearson. 25th March 2016. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

“At the outset of the coronavirus, back in March, we – like all the Super League clubs – thought we had a three-month problem,” he said.

“We now realise it is not only a problem for the whole of 2020, but also for 2021.

“Sky Sports, as one of our clubs’ key funders, have been very helpful in negotiating a deal which won’t impact on us until 2021.

“We have been looking at budgets since day one and, of course, they are a continually moving feast. But as we get more certainty, we can add more certainty to the budgets.

There has been no live Super League on Sky since Castleford Tigers beat St Helens on March 15. Picture by Tony Johnson.

“If you look at 2020, what has helped all clubs is the cuts to salaries that have been accepted voluntarily by all players and staff and cuts to other services as well.

“Also the government’s furlough scheme – which has been a Godsend – and the government’s provision of a loan via the RFL, which we will certainly be taking advantage of.

“Those factors combined will ensure the survival of all Super League clubs in 2020.”

Admittedly, Hetherington said the impact on all Super League clubs’ businesses will be felt “heavily” in 2021 but there seems to be no escaping that.

Even once rugby league does restart this summer, clubs are readying themselves to play behind closed doors until at least October.

Hull FC owner Adam Pearson, though, warned: “I’ll be interested to see how long actually playing behind closed doors does last.

“If shops, hairdressers, bars and restaurants are going to open, it’s going to be very difficult to maintain total closure of football and rugby stadiums.

“I watched a lot of the football over the weekend and have to say, as something for me to fall asleep to, it was fine.

“A lot of games behind closed doors does not, to me, look like a positive future for professional sport so, when we do start, we have to find solutions to getting some crowds back into grounds as soon as safely possible.”

Although he understood the reasons and voted in favour of the rebate, he believes some onlookers are relaxing about the size of the job at hand in recovering rugby league from the impact of Covid.

Pearson said: “It is another financial blow. I think the financial severity about what is happening is starting to disappear out of the sporting fans’ climate.

“We’re in a serious battle at Hull to safeguard the future of the club and obviously the Government has promised us some funding on a loan which will mean the club will go into debt for the first time under my ownership

“At least it may enable us to plot a route forward but it doesn’t come anywhere near the amount that we are going to be losing over the next 18 months.

“It’s cautious positivity for us at the moment.”

Super League’s executive chairman Robert Elstone said: “Rugby league’s 25-year relationship with Sky Sports has been built on a genuine partnership that has never been more evident than during the Covid-19 crisis.

“We are pleased to have reached an agreement which acknowledges the disruption to Sky Sports’ Super League schedules, but gives our clubs greater financial certainty moving forward in these challenging times.

“Our resilience will continue to be tested, but we are grateful to Sky for their ongoing support.”

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