The view from the front office: What do we want, what do we need?

Having raised some of my views in my last column regarding marketing and where the sport should be headed in the UK, much of the feedback on Twitter and Facebook inferred a lack of support for, or confidence in, the RFL administration and the management of some clubs by their CEOs and chairmen.

Having certainly experienced both sides of the fence I thought this week we should look into the reasons why supporters feel sometimes alienated and distanced from their clubs and the games leaders. Hopefully I can also explain the inner workings and reasons behind perceived interference by the ‘suits’ at RFL HQ.

The RFL not only have to administer and control the on-field operations and laws of the game, but also the clubs involved and their funding. Private ownership made up of benefactors from varying backgrounds and experience in the sport have essentially funded clubs in the top tiers for years. Why is that a problem? Well it tells us a few things:

·      Either the game itself cannot be sustainable without external funding (private) supporting it , OR

·      The governance, business practice, basic P&L control of some clubs sees them over spending and not earning enough available revenue.

·      The game as whole is not getting true revenue value in the major revenue areas such as TV rights

It’s not rocket science, however, it really is as simple as that.

Again, so why is that a problem? Well, it is not sustainable and control of clubs, – your clubs, the club that your grandparents followed, loved and sold tickets for – is in the hands of individuals or syndicates that may or may not have the plans, ability, or inclination to secure the club’s future for your own grandkids to love and follow.

The majority of clubs are run well, with the right intentions and with excellent management and ownership in place. The supporters have entrusted the club to these people and are rewarded with security and genuine progress and growth.

But you, the supporters, and the RFL are in fact very much on the same team when it comes to clubs that are struggling financially or perhaps do not have sufficient expertise, planning, or genuine long-term intent.

Supporters in any code out-live owners, CEOs, head coaches and captains. With that comes a responsibility of care which comes naturally to supporters. That is a club’s greatest safety net. We all want our clubs to thrive, to provide good memories, solidarity in lean times, entertainment and sentimental assets to share with and hand down to our friends, family and youth.

The RFL wants the game to do all of the above also. It’s a governing body with a charter to do just that. The RFL does not want supporters let down by the people running their club, or by people working for the RFL.

The RFL has a remit to look into and proactively identify potential issues and danger signs in the running of clubs. This isn’t easy for them. Private ownership needs to be respected, and the investment that comes into the game as a result, and the type of people who have the money and experience to buy into a sporting franchise rarely take kindly to the suits in head office interfering, prying, or sanctioning them for the way they do business.

But pry they must. As long as the RFL distributes much needed and highly important funding to every club, they have an obligation to govern the spend and should be able to expect valid, transparent, accurate, and up to date reporting on the KPIs that are attached to that funding. We all want to ensure the junior development money is spent on junior development and not used to repay loans to owners right? We all want to ensure that marketing and promotional grants are used for just that, and not to make up wages that a club’s CEO hasn’t accounted for in their cashflow projections.

The RFL has exactly the same motivation in overseeing and controlling clubs and asking for transparency, as you do as supporters.

If a club’s owner doesn’t wish to answer to the RFL by reporting as above, then that’s fine, let them run a closed shop. Grants and funding from the RFL must be stopped to that club at the same time though.

Thankfully, as I said earlier, the majority of clubs are run well and with genuine and sincere motivation. These clubs are equally as concerned about how other clubs spend the grants, how they represent the sport and how they look after their supporters.

A majority group of Super League clubs are currently asking questions about a smaller club or two. They feel that as they themselves practice good governance, best practice process, due diligence, and financial discipline, so too should all clubs who are accepting grants from the RFL and who signed up to participation agreements when they joined the competition.

It’s a concerning situation just a few weeks from season kick off but I know the right people at the RFL are watching the situation and asking the right questions. They have the clubs and supporters best interests at heart.

I’m very passionate about the role of supporters as the true owners of clubs, whether that is reflected in the share holdings or not. The fact is that whether owners like it or not, footy clubs are community assets, regardless of the ownership structure. Club owners run clubs based on community principles every day, they play on supporters sense of loyalty to sell season tickets and bring crowds, they ask local councils and organisations for assistance , support and funding. They ask the governing body for funding and support. You cannot have it both ways then and not respect that same community when running a club. Owners must accept that clubs are community assets and that the measure of a good chairman, CEO, and indeed head coach, is in fact the legacy that they leave, not the trophies they put in the cabinet.

One of the finest eras in Leeds United’s history on the pitch in relatively recent years saw them play European Champions League football, they were relegated the following season and were broke with huge sanctions and financial problems.

As supporters, as the true owners, you also have an obligation to your club. Understand that cash flow is hard to manage in sport, accept when new signings are resisted due to uncertainty about revenue projections, encourage new supporters wherever possible, accept and understand the cost of sale aspect of ticketing, retail items and food and beverages and recognise when clubs have been under-pricing and need to change to bring things up to commercial benchmarking.

The only way supporters can ever be expected to accept the nuances of cash flow and quite months in the recruitment market is for them to be informed. Fully Informed. At the very least clubs, if they are run by serious people with good intentions, should make available to supporters profit and loss statements, business plans for at least three years in advance, regular updates on the club and managements performance against those business plans, and notes highlighting where the risk vs reward position is for the club going forward.

No, supporters should not receive a breakdown of wages either for players or club staff, but a clear understanding on where revenues are coming from and are projected to come from, and where the club management sees growth or lean times in the future and why.

If a clubs ownership isn’t open and willing to answer these questions and provide answers to the RFL or the supporters at an AGM, EGM or information evening, then one can only ask why?

No commercial in-confidence information needs be tabled – wages, contract terms etc – so respectfully, resistance to being open about basic off-field performance, structure and planning, basic financial position and performance, can only raise negative connotations.

Being protective or defensive can only mean a few things, either the performance is poor and the owners and CEO are reluctant to show their failings publicly, or they want to hide aspects of the performance and structures for other reasons.

Either way something is amiss and alarm bells should ring loud and clear for supporters and the RFL if this eventuates.

It’s not only for altruistic reasons that clubs need to practice and promote transparency in off-field performance and finances. Commercially I genuinely believe a club is handicapping itself by keeping a closed shop on these things. Sponsors, benefactors and supporters are savvy. They will not spend or invest into a club unless they know their hard-earned money is being well spent. There are too many other open and transparent options to support financially rather than throw good money into a closed shop.

To get buy-in, you need to inform people. There’s no short cut. If you want supporters to respect when money is tight, assist with volunteering efforts, and spread the word in an effort to sign up new season ticket holders. You must involve them and keep them (sincerely) informed, otherwise expect them to sit on the outside feeling neglected, and treat you like a service the same way you are treating them like customers at a movie cinema… and expect criticism when you serve up garbage.

Supporter trusts are booming in a number of sports and a growth in numbers in the RFL club community is very important in my opinion. The RFL would no doubt encourage it as it places more control and power in the hands of people who have genuine interest in longevity and security of club brand and assets, for reasons other than cash and return on investment. It gives you a safety net should a rogue owner or CEO mess up or poor business practices place your club at financial risk.

Damian Irvine is the former chairman of NRL club Cronulla Sharks and achieved the ‘impossible’ by saving them financially and leaving the club as one of Sydney’s richest. Now in Footbal, the Australian was named Best Marketer in UK Football in 2014 while at Notss County and is the UK’s leading rugby league consultant to chairmen, commerical managers and CEOs. Irvine currently works as the Head of Commercial Activities at Wycombe Wanderers and can be found on Twitter at @damianirvine

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