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'If this goes on indefinitely you have to question if pro rugby is sustainable'

IRFU chief warns ‘existence of professional rugby in Ireland’ is under threat in 2021 as sporting bodies seek government help.

IRFU chief executive, Philip Browne.
IRFU chief executive, Philip Browne.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Updated Sep 18th 2020, 9:31 PM

PHILIP BROWNE, THE chief executive of the IRFU, has painted a dire picture of rugby’s future in the event that stadiums remain closed to spectators on an ongoing basis.

While Browne did place an asterisk next to his comments – speaking confidently about fans being allowed to return to rugby stadiums in 2021 – he did not restrain from outlining what the worst case scenario would be, not just for Irish rugby but the global game.

Browne said: “Unfortunately we may have to cut costs if we don’t get people through the turnstiles and revenues do not recover and that is going to impact ultimately on our ability to maintain the structures and personnel that we have put in place.

“It is a fact of life that you cannot spend more than you earn.

“The worst case scenario if this goes on and on and on – which I don’t believe it will because I believe we will see some turnaround next year in terms of vaccines – but if this goes on indefinitely, you have to question whether the professional game is sustainable at all.

“That would not be unique to Ireland. There would be a similar situation across all rugby nations. We need the revenues to sustain what we are doing.”

Earlier today, Browne – along with leading administrators from the GAA and FAI – met with an Oireachtas committee on coronavirus as the sporting bodies seek a total of €70m to cope with the negative financial impact of coronavirus on Irish sport.

With games ongoing behind closed doors and health experts advising sporting bodies to limit attendances as sporting events have the potential to become ‘super spreaders’ of Covid-19, the three main sporting bodies have suffered financial hits.

So much so that Philip Browne, the chief executive of the IRFU, said that an attendance of 5,000 fans in the Aviva would actually cost the union money. He, along with his colleagues in the GAA and FAI, are hoping the Government would allow a one-metre separation, rather than the proposed two-metre separation – to exist in stadiums.

The reason being that – under current government guidelines – a two metre separation would allow for just 7,000 people in the Aviva whereas a one-metre separation would mean up to 18,000 fans could attend a game in the stadium.

“It (a one metre separation) is still not going to solve the (financial) problem entirely, but it will help,” Browne said, as he pointed out that an attendance of 5,000 fans in the stadium would actually end up as a cost for the IRFU, by the time expenses were taken into account.

“It costs us money to do that,” Browne said. “It achieves one objective in getting spectators into the ground, but it actually ends up costing us a significant amount of money to do that.”

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Tom Ryan, director general of the GAA, said the association had lost €21 million so far in 2020 – on the back of the Coronavirus crisis, while Gary Owens, the FAI’s interim chief executive said that the return of fans to stadiums was a crucial part of their financial planning.

Browne went on to tell the Oireachtas Special Committee that the IRFU was “burning” through €5m a month.

“We put a stake in the sand in September that we would put our head above the parapet then, but we’ve moved it out to December,” he said.

“We need in December to see spectators coming back in 2021 and if not, we have to take actions that are frankly unpalatable.

“Unpalatable looks like something very different to what we’re doing at the moment.

“If we cannot generate revenues to support our activities then we will have to scale them back.

“The current projected position to the end of June 2021, showing a negative cash swing of almost €40m from a cash surplus of some €28m in June 2020, to borrowings of just over €10m, backed by union assets, is very serious and is being kept under constant review.

“If these projections were to materialise, the very existence of professional rugby on the island would be under significant threat in 2021.

“Our audited financial statements for the period to July 31, 2020, will show an actual record financial loss of more than €35m.

“We are facing an unprecedented cashflow crisis.”

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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