RFL defend controversial plans to introduce membership fee for community rugby league

James Gordon

Controversial plans to introduce a community game-wide membership fee have been defended as necessary to future proof the sport, by the RFL.

Community clubs, leagues and officials have reacted strongly to the proposals, launched earlier this week, which will require all those involved in the community game to pay an annual “Our League Active” membership fee.

The plan had been to roll it out in 2021, but the pandemic means that it will now come in to force for 2022, with a consultation process currently ongoing to get feedback to shape the membership.

The RFL say that charging an annual membership fee brings them in line with other sports, and that it’s been on the agenda for several years.

But community clubs have slammed the move, saying they will lose players, volunteers and money as a result – overshadowing their return to action.

One club chairman told us: “This came as a shock to the community Clubs. They vented their frustrations and passed comment on the merits of such a scheme, and asked questions around the consultation process, as intimated on the RFL website. There was a suggestion that the consultation involved four players from three clubs.

“In the survey, we were directed to asks which benefit offered you like best. And to pick from three options on how much you believe you should pay for membership of the game. There is no option to say we don’t want a fee.

“In February, we asked about the rumours we’d heard about introducing a membership levy; we were told that we would be included in the discussion when there was something concrete to discuss.  This doesn’t count as being included in discussions.

“This is another diktat from the RFL that must be obeyed, and dissent is frowned upon.  The powers that be seem to think that the volunteers who run the amateur clubs up and down the land have nothing else to do.

“They are passing work out from the centre to the clubs, the demands on volunteers and their time is becoming more demanding and time-consuming.  The messages sent out are you will do this, and it’s now a requirement; there is no explanation of why said change is needed, which is the benefit of this. This would bring people on board and make the journey smoother.

“With the membership scheme, the RFL can’t see that this will drive players, at all ages, away from the game as they or their parents may not afford the extra costs.

“They rob Peter to pay Paul; players and parents will expect the clubs to reduce their annual subs because they are paying the RFL and won’t pay twice. The benefit to the clubs is that we won’t have to pay for player insurance; the maths there don’t add up, the losses to the clubs are far more significant than the cost of the annual player insurance.

“Rugby League is prevalent in areas that feature highly on the deprivation index, a tool in which we are pointed towards when seeking project and grant fund. But yet the RFL, or ‘my community board’, have completely ignored their advice when coming up with this hare-brained scheme.”

Although they didn’t give specific numbers, the RFL confirmed that consultations and round tables had already been held with representatives from the community game and that they plan to do this throughout the year to help shape the membership.

The Community Board is made up of several people that represent various parts of the game.

Sandy Lindsay, the RFL’s non-executive director who is chair of the Community Board, said: “When we are ready to launch it, it will be no surprise to anybody. And it will actually really help us to continue to grow and shape the community game going forward.

“We have an amazingly good relationship with Sport England and they have supported the community game for many years and I’m confident they’ll continue to do that. But what they fund is additional to the sport, it doesn’t cover the day-to-day running of the sport.

“It’s all about being more sustainable as a sport, having our own funds to spend in a way we as a sport collectively want to and ensure the community game can continue developing and growing.

“People don’t understand that the money they’re paying to their clubs doesn’t flow up to the NGB and doesn’t make the sport work centrally. There’s a lack of understanding of all the things that the RFL does behind the scenes to keep the sport functioning.

“There’s been a bit of a disconnect between us and players. So I think it’s going to be a really good way of having dialogue with clubs, players and coaches more directly in the future, and having a relationship with them on a much more day-to-day basis.

“We have made a pledge that if people genuinely can’t afford to pay this membership, we will work in partnership with clubs to make sure people can carry on playing our game, that’s absolutely important. One other thing that’s been raised is families with multiple participants, so again we will work to come up with a family membership.

“That’s what this whole process is about. We are still working to make sure that by the time it’s launched, all of these things are ironed out.”

The RFL says they have two teams of professionals working full time to support the community game, and in 2020, supported clubs to access grants of more than £2m.

The governing body also supports clubs through a myriad of regulatory responsibilities, such as safeguarding, DBS and risk assessments, as well as providing the central operating system for the game to manage registrations and competitions.

They also support with match officials, development and support, as well as a range of education and training courses.

The main financial benefit relating to the membership appears to be that insurance for players and coaches will be covered by the membership, rather than the clubs having to cover these costs.

The announcement on the RFL’s own social media channels received immediate criticism.

Paul Foster, from Chester Gladiators, commented: “After founding a club 13 years ago and working hard to grow numbers and encourage participation in a non heartland area this initiative frustrates me as it will drive people away from the game or reduce the clubs income levels. Completely the wrong strategy and approach. In my view the participation numbers will drop even further if this is implemented as a mandatory payment. No consultation with the broader club community makes it feel like it is a done decision and unfortunately it’s another nail in the coffin of a fantastic game.”

Karl Hutchinson added: “Killing the game from within. Asking volunteers to pay to do something you are having a complete laugh. People will walk away from the game.”

Stuart Springett said: “Pay to volunteer? And for what? You give zero support to the amateur game. Through this pandemic we as a club has had no support from the RFL financially or otherwise. All money raised and grants applied for we have had to source off our own back to keep the club afloat. This despite you securing £32 (?) million in loans from the government, where is the trickle down effect of that money? This will definitely be my last season involved. I already pay money into my club and give my time but I refuse to pay YOU for the privilege. You care nothing for the amateur game, well good luck because without grassroots rugby league the pro game will wither and die. You are a farce of an organisation.”

Marc Lovering, the RFL’s Director of Participation and Development, says that the membership is vital to ensure the sustainability of the sport in the future and points to examples in other sports of centralised membership fees.

He also raised the point of possible participation increases off the back of the World Cup at the end of the year, and how there is currently no direct link between that number and the income the game receives.

Lovering said: “We need to future proof the game, and what differentiates us from virtually every other sport is none of the money finds its way to the centre to provide the services that we have to provide to keep the game going, and that’s what we need to address.

“We’ve looked at all different models at how that can happen and thought membership was the best way.

“In football, if you start a team, you pay to the county FA and they provide those services. If you wanted to be a gymnast, then you pay British Gymnastics £35 to provide those central services.

“It shouldn’t have taken clubs by surprise. We’re now looking at shaping this and the detail.

“One point is we’ve got a World Cup coming up. If we win three World Cups, have a hugely successful World Cup, and we get 50,000 new players which I’m not suggesting will happen, but it could do – how do we service those 50,000 new players? Because at the moment, there is no link between the number of players paying and our income.

“There needs to be some link between participant numbers and the money that flows in to service the game.”

You can have your say via the RFL’s official website here.