Brexit: A real challenge for rugby league

Amidst all the fallout from the recent ‘Brexit’ vote to leave the European Union (EU), rugby league communities were revealed as having voted overwhelmingly in favour of leave.

As The Guardian‘s ‘No Helmets Required’ column revealed:

“Of the English clubs, 30 were in boroughs that voted out, with the others all based in cities (Leeds, London, Oxford and York). Most of the results were close either way, but there were ten rugby league boroughs that had more than 60% voting to leave, including Doncaster with a massive 69 percent, Hull (68 percent), Wigan (64 percent) and Whitehaven (62 percent of Copeland voters).”

But what does a leave vote mean for our game, in real terms? Well, in broad terms, it has to be said that there are some potentially stormy waters ahead. In the worst case scenario, Brexit could hamstring rugby league’s development, drain our game of players and leave us with a shrunken, bitter remnant.

At best, we could see a revitalised domestic game, with local talent replacing foreign imports and backed by British business, sleek and strong after being unleased from the shackles of Brussels.

That latter assessment would be optimistic in the extreme though, as the sport is now presented with a series of challenges in which we will often be at the mercy of a London-centric Conservative government with no love for a our game, and no particular love for the places in which it is played.

We’ve broken the issues down into four key sections: facilities and stadiums, participation and player development, recruitment and retention, and economics.

All of these sections relate to each other in often unobvious ways, and no issue should be viewed in isolation.

Facilities and Stadiums

The EU, through the Regional Development Fund, has helped clubs in the UK to build new facilities. The Colin Hutton Stand at Hull KR‘s KC Lightstream Stadium is just one example of this. Sheffield Eagles‘ new ground will also benefit from this type of funding.

That funding option will not be open to clubs in the future, adding another layer of financial stress to any plans to build new stadiums or expand old ones.

Many clubs also provide education and training schemes in partnership with other bodies, as part of their community obligations. Many of these courses and schemes rely on EU funding.

The Business Inspired Growth Partnership, which works in York, North Yorkshire and the East Riding of Yorkshire, has been allocated £85 million of EU funding.

They receive this funding from three main EU sources: the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the European Social Fund (ESF) and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD).

Groups offering skills training, research and development and other things are invited to tender projects for the funds. (Source HERE).

Much of that money could have gone to rugby league related schemes. How much will be lost in the future is hard to calculate.

Councils in Yorkshire were set to receive £600 million in grants to help stimulate economic growth over the next five years or so (Source: Sky News). That is now in jeopardy. Again, that is bound to affect rugby league communities, and have consequences for the sport.

Don’t bank on a government led by Theresa May to replace it any day soon, either.

Participation and Player Development

Of course, the cutting of funding to deprived areas of the country also means fewer facilities for people to use, including sports facilities. While faciities which are already in place maybe safe, though they will still need to be maintained, how many new pitches, gyms and club houses are now not going to built in the future?

This will have a massive effect in a country where government ministers still delight in selling off playing fields.

We have already seen how elite sport in this country, outside of Scotland anyway, is increasingly becoming a clique dominated by people who went to private school.

Private schools have more facilties and are financially robust institutions which do pay tax, thanks to being classed as charities. They also do not play rugby league.

A large part of this trend has been down to a lack of facilities in more marginalised and deprived areas of the UK. After Brexit, there is no reason to foresee anything other than a continuation of this trend, to rugby league’s direct disadvantage.

Recruitment

The area of recruiting talent from overseas is perhaps the most obvious thing to be affected by Britain leaving the EU, at least on paper.

Clubs at all levels of the professional game in Britain rely in foreign imports. There are players from Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere at almost every professional club in the UK.

This is where it can get tricky for rugby league. Many of these players are here because they qualify for EU passports through ancestry. Josh Mantellato at Hull KR is one example, as he has an Italian passport, as does Mark Minichiello at Hull FC. Pat Richards at Catalan Dragons has an Irish passport and it goes on.

Players such as this would be hit by an immediate penalty if a situation develops whereby EU nationals are given no priority in a new immigration system.

The future situation also depends on what kind of deal the likes of Boris Jounson, Liam Fox and David Davis can negotiate with the rest of the world. It is worth noting that it was reported recently that Davis did not know that individual EU countries did not negotiate trade deals on their own, so coming up with any deal which works may take a long time.

Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein are currently part of the European Economic Area (EEA), and the UK could yet join this illustrious group, which would change very little when it came to recruiting players with EU passports. EU passport holders would continue to have the same rights as before if the UK was in the EEA.

The Cotonou Agreement also means that players from certain countries are treated the same as EU nationals. For rugby league fans, this means that players with citizenship of Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and South Africa do not count as foreigners on clubs’ quotas. Many Super League players are here on these kinds of passports, such as Willie Mason at Catalans.

The uncertainty about what kind of trade deal with what provisions will result from negotiations over the next few years will also have a knock-on effect on clubs’ recruitment.

After all, if a player’s immigration status is unclear, and likely to become less clear over coming years, then any kind of long-term deal for an overseas player almost becomes an impossibility.

This could shape the recruitment plans of clubs for many years to come. Using experienced overseas players to season a young, homegrown squad could become very difficult indeed, especially for clubs outside Super League.

This could lead to a situation where we magically produce bucketloads of homegrown players to compensate, but with the funding cuts and economic situation affecting development work and participation rates, that is unlikely to happen.

This could have serious implications for the quality of player recruited by clubs, and how long they stay. Economic imperatives could also see more homegrown players leave for the NRL, creating another gap that will need filling somehow.

Economics

When it comes to the economics of sport, rugby leaue does tend to suffer. Finding sponsors and advertisers remains a real challenge for everyone involved in the sport, and Brexit will make that process much tougher, especially in the short-term, and probably for longer.

The sport will be affected in ways which are far from immediately obvious too. But take the example of a food company, such as Super League sponsor Batchelor’s Peas.

Batchelor’s grow their peas predominately in England‘s eastern counties. Places that tended to vote ‘Leave’. Many of their peas are therefore picked by migrant labour.

With Britain set to leave the EU, how these workers are recruited and from where will affect Batchelor’s planning. Wage costs are likely to rise, and so is the uncertainty which makes companies cautious.

More expensive production leads to higher prices for customers and less money to spend on advertising, which means less cash flowing into rugby league.

There has also been a massive devaluing of the British economy in the weeks since the Brexit vote, with more fluctuations expected, and growth drained. Again, with less money around generally, less will flow into rugby league.

Less money to market the game, and less money with which to pay players makes us begin to look very uncompetitive, especially when compared with the NRL.

French rugby union may also see an opportunity to pounce on many of our players.

Conclusion

The consequences of Brexit do not look positive for rugby league. EU funding being drained from deprived areas, potentially a much reduced player pool, less funding for facilities and stadiums, a weaker UK economy and

The problem boils down to uncertainty. Things that were in place will be removed and we do not know what will replace them. At this point may questions around Brexit remain unanswered.

Without exaggerating, rugby league needs to start planning or it could potentially be a very dark time for our sport in the next few years.

Without a proper strategy for Brexit in place, squabbling over things like the size of the salary cap, whilst ignoring the bigger story emerging, could look very small and misguided indeed.