Leeds Rhinos and Super league facing up to grim financial reality – Peter Smith

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AFTER Friday’s board meeting we should know when Betfred Super League will return and under what format, but rugby league’s coronavirus crisis is far from over.

Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington is confident – thanks largely to the £16m government loan negotiated by the Rugby Football League (RFL) – all 12 Super League clubs will still be in business at the end of this year.

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That’s an achievement of sorts, however, next season is going to be at least as difficult, if not more so. This week Super League, the RFL and Sky reached an agreement which ensures the top-flight clubs will receive their full 2020 funding from the television deal, with the broadcaster getting a rebate in 2021.

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Figures have not been confirmed, but it seems each club’s handout next year will be around £280,000 less than it was this term.

That may be peanuts in football, but for a sport like rugby league it is a huge sum and is going to mean significant cuts which will have a major bearing on next season.

Last month Super League clubs “unanimously” voted to keep the salary cap for 2021 at the current limit, £2.1m

That was a surprise considering roughly half of them had previously been in favour of a reduction to about £1.8m – virtually the amount by which they will be worse off next year under the terms of this week’s agreement.

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The Mend A Hose Jungle, Castleford. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWPIX.com.The Mend A Hose Jungle, Castleford. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWPIX.com.
The Mend A Hose Jungle, Castleford. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWPIX.com.

It’s a fair bet most clubs will therefore be planning to spend circa £1.8m on their squad in 2021.

There will be exceptions. Five clubs are understood to have been keen from the outset to see the salary cap raised, or at least retained at the current level and those with a rich backer who is prepared to spend on the team will be in a better situation than the rest.

Warrington Wolves have already announced Australian superstar Greg Inglis for 2021 so big-name signings are still happening, but for most clubs recruitment may come down to replacing players who move on, rather than an attempt to strengthen their team.

Players have already taken a pay cut and some coaches are talking about running with a smaller squad next year.

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Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington.
Picture Bruce Rollinson.Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington.
Picture Bruce Rollinson.
Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington. Picture Bruce Rollinson.

If all 12 clubs reduced their squad by four, that would be 48 players on the open market.

A decision has yet to be made on relegation, but turkeys tend not to vote for Christmas and clubs making cuts are likely to be reluctant to risk dropping into the second tier.

No relegation for this season and the next, but promoting the Championship Grand Final winners, is one option. That would take Super League to 14 clubs by 2022 and do away with the need for the unloved six ‘loop’ fixtures, when teams meet for a third time.

The situation in the Championship and League One is on the agenda of a separate meeting today, but some lower division clubs have made it clear they are opposed to restarting – particularly behind closed doors – if there is no promotion or relegation.

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Sky Sports TV crew. Picture: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com.Sky Sports TV crew. Picture: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com.
Sky Sports TV crew. Picture: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com.

Budgets for next year won’t be known for some time yet, at least until the number of home games played in front of a crowd this term is confirmed.

At the moment, Super League clubs expect to play behind closed doors until September at the earliest, though much depends on the public health situation and social distancing restrictions. France, which is a few weeks ahead, will allow fans in stadiums from August.

Once that is decided, a rebate for season ticket holders, advertisers, corporates and businesses – who have already forked out for 14 home games in 2020 – can be calculated. On top of that, there’s the cost of coming off furlough, paying for coronavirus testing and so on.

Negotiations with the government and Sky have secured clubs’ future in the short-term, but unfortunately the loan and rebate both simply kick the problem further down the road.

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The meeting this week will give players, coaches and fans something to look forward to, but the only real certainty is choppy waters are in prospect for another couple of years yet.


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