Rugby League ‘The Precarious Road Ahead’

In the absence of games being played and logistical difficulties the Government bailout, as requested by the RFL, becomes critical especially with the Rugby League World Cup in 2021. With the backdrop of the UK Government’s 5 point action plan that must be met before it considers lifting the lockdown measures and as we approach the next review date, 7 May 2020, in this first part blog we examine some of the current challenges faced by professional rugby league clubs, the impact it has on players and the legal issues that stem from complying with the Government regulations. Duty of Care The RFL (the national governing body for Rugby League in the UK) has a duty of care to its members. In turn, each UK based professional club has a duty of care, as employers, to their employees (whether it’s players or staff members) as well as comply with employment and health and safety legislation. Putting economic pressures aside, for the sport to be in a position to ‘bounce-back’ there’s going to have to be some careful strategic planning which doesn’t fall foul of the Government regulations, doesn’t put anyone at unnecessary health risk or breach any terms of contract. The RFL, in line with their duty of care, have already collected feedback from Stakeholders to canvass opinions from across the game whether it be Men’s, Women’s and Wheelchair; players and their representatives; coaches, match officials, media and medical professionals to aid discussions with Clubs and Council members as to the future of the game. With a total of 183 completed surveys there’s a lot of issues (understandably) being raised. Health & Safety We hear daily at the Government’s press conferences the scientific advice delivered by the senior medical advisors. The consistent message being ‘Stay at Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.’ To see games back in action once the restrictions are relaxed, a lot will depend on how the RFL agree on fixtures, how Clubs intend to operate in line with the limitations, to provide a safe working and playing environment. Stating the obvious but being a full-contact sport how can Clubs ensure social distancing between the players even if matches take place behind closed-doors? How do you prevent players from spitting on pitch or from hugging each other during celebratory win? What about the fans? There’s been talk generally about having matches behind closed-doors with a limited number of attendees, but even with a limited number of attendees that in itself can potentially bring problems for the owners of stadiums who owe a duty of care (under the Occupier’s Liability Act 1957) to people who visit. Player Welfare Players are employees and have the same employment rights as everyone else. There are a lot of uncertainties for players coming out of contract at the end of November (June for rugby union/football). Player safety has to be paramount and it’s not uncommon for players to feel vulnerable about returning to the field before it is safe to do so for fear of contracting the virus and passing it to their families. The key issue for Clubs will be if a player objects that the venue for training or games are not safe and so not reasonable for them to participate. The thought of seeing players playing in masks and gloves would feel surreal. Club Finance in the UK We’ve all heard about CBILS (set up by the Government to help small and medium-sized businesses affected by Covid-19 to access finance of up to £5m). Sounds great in theory but the reality of qualifying for CBILS is much more challenging than first meets the eye. Whilst it took some time for the Government to let go off the personal guarantee criteria, the remaining general requirements to provide banks with profitability and cashflow forecast is a challenge for any business let alone a rugby league club which relies on its fan-based revenue to survive. So how can it realistically forecast its cashflow with sport on hold, lockdown measures in place and players and staff in furlough? Only recently we’ve seen it reported that Hull FC owner, Adam Pearson, has been critical of the Government and the bank after being denied a loan which would have helped them get through a period with little to no income. The CJRS (set up by the Government as a job retention scheme) to cover wages for employees on temporary leave (furlough) comes to an end at the end of June with no sight of that period being extended. Really this scheme has been the lifeline of Clubs, so how can they be expected to survive when this scheme ends and lockdown measures in situ? Even with the recent initiative of the Government’s Bounce Back Loan (to help small and medium-sized businesses affected by Covid-19 to access finance of up to £50k) which we’re told is a one-page simple application and money given within 24 hours of approval, may well help a Championship Club but for a Super League Club they may in the short term see some benefit but they certainly won’t see much major benefit in the long-term. Overseas Clubs It was announced recently by the French Prime Minister that sport, including behind closed doors, wouldn’t continue until September. That leaves both Catalan Dragons and Toulouse Olympique not being able to host matches for the majority of the season. An issue both Super League and the RFL probably hadn’t anticipated. It’s highly unlikely that a pandemic would feature in a contingency plan. How and when will fixtures be set and be fair? We’ve also seen a three phased plan unfold ‘Framework to restart Ontario’ which sees sporting events continued to be restricted for the foreseeable future. Where does that leave Toronto Wolfpack? Travel Restrictions Even if we dare ourselves to imagine fixtures taking place, how can players and the like be expected to travel and attend? Whether it be Catalan or Toulouse or Toronto entry restrictions may well see them being quarantined for at least 14 days, how is that even practical let alone the health and safety risks it could impose and duty of care on the Clubs? The consensus will be its never-ending, no win, situation. If lockdown measures or social distancing continue for the foreseeable future and if Clubs can’t get access to the finance that it desperately needs, isn’t it inevitable that the game will die? The Government clearly has a duty of care to the public and whilst it’s good news to hear the Prime Minister announce today that we’re ‘past the peak’ there is still a lot of uncertainty. The biggest danger would be to start bringing games back into the calendar but then finding that the reproduction rate “R” rises above 1 meaning a further lockdown period making it very difficult to start planning ahead. Guest blogger, Ken Jones, explores in the second part blog his 10 point blueprint to reset the game of Rugby League and to see it prosper as a success in the future. __________________________________________________ Front Row Legal are a boutique law firm that specialises in Sport, Media and Business Law in England and Wales. They have specialist knowledge in these areas of law, which means they can help where many law firms won’t have the experience. They are based in Leeds with a national client base.

Published April 30, 2020

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