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INTERVIEW: Tackling the global pandemic

Karl Fitzpatrick, CEO of Warrington Wolves, addresses several obstacles facing Rugby League clubs during the global pandemic. He speaks on the clubs ‘donate a ticket scheme’, cash flow challenges, approaches the possible opportunities and also the support of the RFL.

What challenges have the club faced concerning Covid-19 and what has been key to overcoming these obstacles?

Like most organisations, the biggest challenge has been cash flow as the majority of our revenue streams have been switched off overnight. There are a number of government schemes that have provided assistance such as furloughing and business rate relief. However, there is still a deficit to meet all of our liabilities, therefore, we have needed to introduce a temporary salary reduction for all employees. This reduction has been applied to everyone in the organisation; players, coaches and off-field staff. Delivering this message personally via the telephone to everyone impacted was taxing but it allowed me to paint the full financial picture. The response was outstanding, with everyone agreeing to the reductions.

A number of our commercial partners have also been impacted and subsequently sponsorship receivables have become at risk. Whilst it is prudent to know our legal position, I am reluctant to ‘get the contract out of the drawer’. My approach has been empathetic and to try to reach a position that both parties are comfortable with. Thus far, this approach has strengthened many of our commercial relationships. On the other side of the ledger, we have our suppliers and again I have found that speaking to them to explain our challenges has resulted in a resolution that works for both the Club and the supplier. We often talk about the importance of relationships, I think that more than ever this will be tested and, where Clubs have invested time in their commercial relationships, they will reap the rewards.

How do you see the sport moving forward from this and what support is required to resume normality to the season?

As a sport, I think we need to grasp opportunity during this adversity. Although playing games ‘behind closed doors’ is going to hurt Clubs by way of loss of match day revenues, there is now the potential to project our sport to a wider and captive audience, one that is desperate for live sport. As soon as the government allows games to be played behind closed doors, if we can respond in a nimble manner and be one of the first sports to re-start, not only does it show willing to our valued broadcast partner, Sky, but it could open up other opportunities by way of international broadcast markets.

"As a sport, I think we need to grasp opportunity during this adversity."

Do you see this as a good time to press 'reset' on aspects of the club and the sport that can now be tackled with a different approach?

I think all businesses will be reflecting and using this period to review how they operate. Most Rugby League Clubs operate in a very lean manner anyway so there is not much fat to cut out. However, it does present an opportunity to determine value and consider alternative ways of working. This situation has probably highlighted how vulnerable we are as a sport, with no reserves and the need for further government support.

What support have you received from the League and has this been sufficient? If not, what else is required to support the future of clubs?

The relationship with the RFL has become stronger during this period, they have been in regular contact with the Clubs and provided guidance on the Chancellor’s varied schemes. The RFL continue to engage with the government as the game seeks the necessary financial support. Rugby League is much more than a sport, the game provides a positive social and economic impact across all our communities, many of which are disadvantaged. Hopefully, the government will recognise this and provide support accordingly.

Can you tell us more about the 'Donate a Ticket Scheme' and how this came to existence? What impact is this aiming to have?

As a Club, we wanted to say ‘thank you’ to all of the key workers who are doing a heroic job on the frontline. Therefore, we came up with this initiative that allows supporters to purchase a match ticket that is then donated to a frontline worker, and for every ticket donated we will match it. Additionally, our principal sponsor, Hoover, have joined the initiative and have committed to donating 100 tickets. This not only allows us to show gratitude but also gives the key workers something to look forward to when this crisis is over. Furthermore, the initiative provides much needed revenue during these difficult times. When the fixtures recommence and the gates are open, key workers can apply to receive the donated ticket and a number will also be distributed amongst Warrington and Halton Hospitals, the NHS Foundation Trust, local Tesco stores and schools across the town.