The onset of Covid-19 has forced the Rugby Football League to suspend their fixtures until at least 3 April. Rugby league now faces a period of serious uncertainty as many clubs come to terms with the economic impact of lost revenue. While the government will rightly prioritise the health of the population, I want to remind them not to let rugby league face this uncertain future alone. The sport deserves better, and the thousands of boys and girls who play it every weekend do too. As St Helens chairman, Eamonn McManus, put it: “Government has to look at support for rugby league. The very existence of our sport is on the line.”
Few sports encapsulate a place like rugby league does. For over a century the sport has secured a deep and enduring legacy in towns across the north. In the recent general election rugby league towns like Leigh, Warrington, Dewsbury, Halifax, Barrow, Wakefield, Castleford and Workington staged important election night contests. More importantly, the sport is also predominantly located in former industrial towns and cities, places which are all too familiar with facing economic challenges.
The demise of heavy industry has hit these places hard. In towns like mine, Wigan, and across the north, the skilled jobs we lost weren’t replaced. Towns which powered the industrial revolution and led the world for almost a century struggled to adapt to changing circumstances. Good jobs failed to materialise to replace the skilled work in heavy manufacturing. Towns lost some of their purpose, and many young people faced unenviable life choices: stay home for insecure, low-paid employment or move elsewhere to look for a better life. Over time, these towns grew older as fertility rates flatlined, young people left and older people accounted for ever larger proportions of the local population.
One of the results of an ageing population in towns across the north, midlands and elsewhere has been a decline in spending power. Older people tend to have less disposable income, meaning their shopping choices are better served by discount retailers. Less money to spend means less money to spend at the rugby as well. Clubs cut their cloth accordingly, meaning rugby league season ticket prices are one of the best-value in sport. Unsurprisingly, over time the clubs find it ever more difficult to make ends meet, relying more and more on the benevolence of good sponsors and revenue from crucial TV deals with broadcasters.
So, while the sport generates turnover, too few of the clubs turn a profit at the end of each season. Covid-19 could not have arrived at a worse time for the sport. Super League has ambitious plans for expanding the sport at home and overseas, but a financial crisis currently risks setting all this back.
Over 100,000 people play the game each weekend. Up to two million people attend Super League alone during the season, in addition to Championship, League 1, Women’s Super League, Disability Rugby League and youth fixtures. It has been estimated that every £1 spent by community rugby league clubs generates a social return of £4.08. The health and societal benefits of rugby league are without question.
All of which means the survival and success of rugby league is a symbolic test for the government’s commitment to our towns. A commitment to rugby league is a commitment to the identity, aspirations and social cohesion of the famous towns which play the sport. Because rugby league isn’t like other sports. In many towns the sport is the sole sporting identity they have. Not only that, but the clubs themselves are firmly embedded in the communities they serve. Wigan Warriors offer everything from support for the local food bank to visits to care homes to support fans with dementia.
I expect the rugby league community to come together as they always have to face the immediate challenge of Covid-19. People in rugby league towns are fiercely proud and resilient. They won’t be cowed by the scale of the challenge the sport faces. I hope, however, that the government works with the sport to safeguard it for future generations. In towns like mine, the sport means that much to people.