Leeds Rhinos are well-placed to bounce back from Covid downturn

MORE than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, every rugby league club has been affected to some extent, but Leeds Rhinos more than most.

On the way back: Leeds Rhinos supporters will finally be allowed back into Headingley for Sunday’s night’s Super League encounter against Hull FC. Picture: Bruce rollinson
On the way back: Leeds Rhinos supporters will finally be allowed back into Headingley for Sunday’s night’s Super League encounter against Hull FC. Picture: Bruce rollinson

The timing could not have been much worse for the eight-time Super League champions, who found themselves devoid of virtually all income less than a year after a £45m overhaul of Headingley Stadium, including the building of two huge new stands, was completed.

Arguably the finest facilities in world rugby league, including conference and banqueting suites and a hotel, stood idle for more 14 months as matches were played behind closed doors.

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Used as a neutral venue, sometimes hosting up to six games over a weekend, an empty Headingley hosted 32 fixtures between Super League’s resumption in August and last Friday’s derby between Leeds and Wakefield.

Best in the world: Leeds Rhinos' commercial director Rob Oates has hailed the club's fans and sponsors.

The long wait for the turnstiles to reopen will finally come to an end this weekend when 4,000 spectators are admitted to Rhinos’ game against Hull.

Leeds have around 8,000 members so those without a ticket on Sunday will have an opportunity to attend the game against St Helens in three weeks’ time, which is scheduled to be the club’s last home fixture under social distancing restrictions.

For Leeds, like all clubs, the return of fans, even with a reduced capacity, will provide a vital injection of matchday income.

According to their commercial director Rob Oates Rhinos, because of the scale of their operation, have taken a bigger financial hit than most of their rivals, but are also in a better position to bounce back.

Fingers crossed: Leeds Rhinos hope the team's win over Wakefield will be the last behind closed doors at their revamped Emerald Headingley ground. Picture Bruce Rollinson

Oates revealed every club sponsor has renewed their support, along with the vast majority of season ticket holders, a response he described as “amazing”.

“It’s at times like these you realise just how good they are,” said Oates of Leeds’s members.

“We put some options to them last summer and their support and understanding has been incredible.

“We offered three options – a rebate, spread the money over three years or donate it [the cost of last year’s season ticket] to the club.

“Some people are struggling as well and need a refund, we understand that and a membership is a big financial commitment, but the vast majority have left their money in the club.”

Oates believes the coronavirus crisis has strengthened the bond between fans and the Headingley club.

“I think it has made people realise just what the club means to them, to fans, sponsors, players and staff,” he added.

“People have missed being able to come to the ground and we can’t wait to see them back on Sunday.

“I think the team and the whole organisation needs them.”

In terms of commercial backers, the response has exceeded anything the club could have hoped for, Oates said.

He revealed: “Every single sponsor – 100 per cent of them –has stood by the club.

“That is testimony to what they think about the club and it is humbling.

“I took some phone calls and I cried, it was so emotional; they have been so, so generous.

“We’re not just talking £200, it was £50,000-60,0000 in one phone call I took. That’s unbelievable.

“All our commercial customers have stuck with us and our associate club partners have been amazing.”

Where Rhinos have lost out is on individual match-day income, from occasional and away fans or anyone who would have booked one-off hospitality.

“That number is big,” Oates admitted. But he stressed: “While it has been challenging, commercially we are in really, really good shape.

“Our fall is probably higher than most other rugby clubs but our pathway out of it is clearer.

“We are turning over probably three times as much as other clubs, so there has been a bigger financial impact on us, but the recovery will be quicker than most for the same reason.”

Oates accepts new backers are also needed as the club begins ther long road to recovery.

“While our existing group of fans and commercial partners have been amazing, we also want new people,” he added.

“The game-day experience at Emerald Headingley is second to none. After lockdown, people are chomping at the bit to get out and about so, hopefully, we will attract new fans and commercial partners as well.”

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