Fan lockout leaves me fearing for rugby league’s future - Gareth Ellis

For the first time, I am genuinely worried about the future of rugby league.

Empty stands at Wigan (Picture: PA)

This time last week we were looking forward to the prospect of seeing crowds – albeit just 1,000 per game – in the grounds again for Super League matches.

Our Hull game at Castleford Tigers this Wednesday was, in fact, one of the pilot fixtures.

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But then came that bombshell news last Tuesday that the scheme had been scrapped and it could now be SIX months before we see crowds in stadiums again.

Match action between Catalan Dragons and Wakefield Trinity in front of empty stands at Huddersfield (Picture: PA)

Our chairman, Adam Pearson, likened it to Armageddon for rugby league clubs if they are unable to welcome supporters back in until March.

I’d heard these sort of comments over the last few months and – like how I said about coronavirus, thinking it was someone else’s problem, it won’t affect us, we’ll be all right – I probably had a similar mindset about the game being on its backside in 12 months’ time if we don’t get things right now.

I did feel it wouldn’t ever get to that stage. But now I almost think I can see it happening; I can see where it’s coming from and that fear that the game is in danger.

Going right back to the start, we all thought when we went into lockdown we’d just go week by week, thinking it would just be a matter of weeks before we were back training or playing.

Luke Briscoe of Leeds Rhinos is watched by no one from the stands (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

That turned into six months, Speaking to Adam and the club during that period – we were negotiating pay cuts and things like that – his thoughts even then were hopefully we’ll get some fans in by around where we are now.

That was the plan up until very recently. That wouldn’t have solved all the financial problems but it would have almost cushioned them and given them some sort of injection of progress.

But now we’re hearing there won’t be any fans with the restrictions in place looking like they could go on for six months.

It just looks very ominous in terms of getting fans back into stadiums and I just don’t know how that will work.

I’m not privy to the figures but, on the face of it, looking in like everyone else, if money’s not coming in and we’re still getting paid, that money going out does not last forever.

If it’s not coming in then where do we go from here? And obviously that’s not just in terms of rugby league but all sports and all businesses.

It is worrying. I’ve gone from that original thinking everything will be okay to getting a little concerned about where the future of the game does lie and the impact this is going to have.

If we do have a game in 12 months’ time – let’s hope we do –where will it leave the sport?

Does it take us back years or do we just stand still, reassess and try to get things steadied so we can recover later?

Now, at the minute, there has to be a massive pat on the back to sponsors who are in a position to be able to keep – and want to keep putting their funds in – and supporters who keep on with their membership passes and not wanting anything back.

But, with season-ticket holders especially, I can’t imagine that they will continue next season if they know they can’t go to a game.

That is a real worry. The only thing clubs can guarantee for a certain level of income is their season-ticket money; the rest is unknown when it comes to working out who will pay on the gate in walk-ups, or how many shirts you’re going to sell so all those projections are out of the window.

So many fans have generously agreed not to ask for rebates on this year’s tickets for games that are not being played. But you cannot expect them to do the same again in 2021 when they know they might not see any action.

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Thank you

James Mitchinson