The decision to not allow the planned return of fans has been attributed to reasons beyond the control of Super League clubs, who have been left frustrated after months of preparations.
RFL chief executive Ralph Rimmer was one of a number of top sport officials on a call with the Government on Tuesday afternoon, when it was explained what the updated coronavirus restrictions mean for sports clubs.
He issued a statement on Tuesday night which revealed the harsh reality facing the sport, now staring at losses of £2m per week across the board.
Just last week, it was announced that Super League would welcome back fans up to a limit of 1,000 for four games due to be played on September 30, ahead of the planned phased return of fans from October 1.
All of that has now been shelved, with the latest guidance suggestion that it could be six months before fans can return.
That has caused understandable concern and worry for the RFL and clubs, who have been working hard behind the scenes in recent months to get their venues COVID-safe to enable the return of fans.
The DCMS acknowledged that clubs have been working hard in the background, and said that the concern isn’t the stadiums themselves – but the mass gatherings around the area of the stadium, with people arriving on public transport or otherwise, who would have to gather to come towards and leave a stadium.
The analysis of data around this suggested that the risk was too great, and it would be bringing people together unnecessarily given the increased risk of coronavirus.
Prior to the meeting with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, Rimmer had said they believed a return of crowds to rugby league was deliverable, and that they wanted to demonstrate how robustly they could manage that return.
Unfortunately, it seems that it will now be a long time until rugby league – or any elite sport – gets to prove that.
It has come as a shock to a number of club officials, with Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington quoted just yesterday that he still felt that the Rhinos could welcome back fans this season.
He said: “We were hoping that was the start of the process to be able to admit more fans. There’s an incredible amount of work and effort gone into the protocols of making sure it’s totally Covid free and safe for everybody.
“I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever would have managed the operation extremely well but alas it’s not to be. It’s now put on hold until the next time and I have no doubt that will happen.”
A further wait of six months would send rugby league in to next season before fans can return, while there is also the concern how that uncertainty might impact on season ticket sales, which traditionally would go on sale in the autumn and help clubs get through and plan for the next campaign.
Wakefield owner Michael Carter said: “We had planned to go on sale with season tickets in November but we’re going to have a rethink now.
“If you’re a fan, you’re not really going to buy into buying a season ticket when you don’t know what’s going to happen next year and I guess that could ultimately be the downfall for a number of clubs who will be relying on that income coming in from November to January.
“We have to find a way around the £250,000 we were expecting to come from season-ticket revenue if it doesn’t come in.
“And if we haven’t got crowds in February, that’s a £60,000 or £70,000-a-game loss on the back of a Sky rebate of upwards of £250,000 per club. There’s suddenly big, big holes.
“It’s a very serious speed bump. We could ultimately be faced with starting next season with no or limited crowds and, if that’s the case, then all of us are going to look at budgets again.”
Although grateful to have returned to action to help satisfy the commercial requirements of the Sky Sports broadcast deal, other Super League clubs are also starting to get anxious about what’s ahead, with Warrington chief Karl Fitzpatrick admitting to local press that they needed fans to return weeks ago.
Spoken to @WarringtonRLFC CEO Karl Fitzpatrick about the prospect of no fans in grounds for the foreseeable future as per the PM's announcement this morning.
More in this week's paper but when I asked when there would become a need for fans to return, he answered "weeks ago"
— Matthew Turner (@MattTurner_WG) September 22, 2020
The Championship and League One clubs too, virtually forgotten about since their season was canned back in July, will have been looking forward to returning to action for the 2021 season.
This news adds further uncertainty for those clubs, as returning behind closed doors is unlikely to be a feasible option.
Hunslet chairman Kenny Sykes said: “Obviously, the decision not to allow crowds back into stadiums for up to six months, whilst understandable, is still disappointing for everyone involved. This could of course impact on the start of the 2021 season and once again raises questions around the financial feasibility of weekly testing costs, together with clubs having to play games behind closed doors.
“As such we will be liaising with the Rugby Football League and all other Championship and League 1 clubs over the coming weeks.”
Dowden and the Government have promised to work with sports, including rugby league, rugby union, football and cricket, to limit the damage caused by the pandemic, though what that looks like in reality remains to be seen.
They already pledged a £16m emergency loan to the RFL back in May, and while several clubs have applied for it, some have been put off over concerns about how it will be paid back.