Rugby club tackling Covid's big hits

Coronavirus is having a massive impact on sport, and here Andy Wright, chairman of Ludlow RFC, outlines the financial challenges for the rugby club during the crisis and his hopes for a bounce back, in a story which will resonate with a host of clubs in a similar position.

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For a little town of 12,000 people Ludlow is a town that punches above its weight and that’s particularly true when it comes to rugby.

This time last year the club was still in with a sniff of a top four finish in Midlands One, a place populated by big name clubs from well populated areas, taking on players, some of whom are paid to play.

Home games at the club’s Linney ground, surely one of the most picturesque in the league with the castle and riverside as its backdrop, were being watched by several hundred spectators.

As it was the club finished a creditable mid-table and began to plan for an all-out assault on the top of the table for the 2020 season.

Then Covid happened. Our season never commenced. The nearest we got to playing in anger was 10-a-side touch rugby and the weeks of prep put in by coaches and players went to waste.

Effort had to be channelled into keeping players interested and amused.

They are buoyed by having a £35,000 set of floodlights installed during the summer, but they trained under them only twice before the Government pulled the plug on all but elite sports and the lights still have to be paid for.

In a normal season that wouldn’t be a problem, but these are far from normal times.

Like most amateur clubs Ludlow relies on four main strands for its finance. The are – sponsorship; cash through the tills from the bar, meals and events; memberships; and diversification.

Let’s take sponsorship first. As in previous years as chairman I did my bit and knocked on the doors of the usual suspects and tried the doors of plenty of new companies too. Despite the looming lockdown most responded positively, eager to support a team that is very much at the centre of the community.

The Linney ground is home to the town band, the starting point for the popular Storm the Castle duathlon and for several cycling events, and home to a thriving fitness business.

Ludlow has deservedly made a name for itself for fine dining, excellent restaurants and fine pubs, but they’ve been closed more often than open. Most have tried to maintain a takeaway service but they will be looking to tighten their belts if they survive, leaving little spare to help a rugby club.

Many of the shops which sponsor have been closed throughout – from the rumours and For Sale notices dotting the town several will never reopen, so no sponsorship there.

So cash? There haven’t been many opportunities for the club to raise any. The autumn internationals raised a brief hope as decent crowds turned up to watch, socially spaced.

The players arranged a touch rugby tournament with local teams and a socially distanced fun day but numbers had to be limited, and limited numbers mean limited opportunities to raise cash. In normal times every home game has 100-plus members booked for lunch and drinking for several hours but we had none of that.

Memberships held up well. Almost 90 per cent of the vice presidents renewed their memberships and several gave generously on top of that, but they got precious little in return. I am pretty certain they will support us again but they need to see some rugby to reward their loyalty.

That leaves diversification. We recognised early on that we needed to find other revenue streams. The big earners are the twice-yearly festivals where we use the Linney for camping, parking and entertainment. There has been none of that in the last year, possibly none until much later this year.

We do contract parking for local businesses during the week, but few have been operating with full staff this year.

We've invested in our clubhouse to make it attractive as a venue for weddings, wakes, and so on – all good earners normally but there have been none of those.

We’ve gone out of our way to attract businesses to use our club for things like wine tasting and for the last three years we’ve derived income through a fitness business, but instead of the mass sessions proprietor Andy Silvey has had to make do with one-to-one sessions.

We made big efforts to cut our overheads. The clubhouse roof is end-to-end solar panels which have made massive inroads into our heating and lighting bills.

For the past seven years our treasurer, Peter England, exercised careful housekeeping, so that we have no need to worry. We will survive this season.

Ironically our judicious housekeeping penalises us in the current situation. Because we have money in the bank we won’t get Government bailout grants through Sport England or the RFU.

We did qualify for lockdown money which came via Shropshire Council which has been a lifeline and we think we will qualify for a development loan from the RFU. We will need to think carefully how we use that money.

It may seem odd to be drawing up development plans when the watchword for clubs across the country should be survival but we need to make ourselves attractive to get back the players of all ages and the supporters. That will be the challenge we all face.

I am confident that we can bounce back, that we will shore up our finances, and that top four finish is achievable.

If you or your business want to join us on that journey then please write to me at andrew.wright123@btinternet.com

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