Michael Reid’s announcement that he is stepping down as chief executive has stunned Ulster Rugby.
In the 12 years in which he has had his hand on the rudder, Ulster have experienced some memorable highs and a few depressing lows.
The peak was the 1998/99 European Rugby Cup campaign which ended in triumph at Lansdowne Road, the high point of that remarkable run being the magnificent semi-final victory over Stade Francais achieved by Harry Williams’ heroes at a packed-to-capacity Ravenhill.
There was, too, the 2005/06 Magners League title win under Mark McCall. And the Celtic Cup success achieved in 2003 when McCall’s predecessor, Alan Solomons, was in charge. Great days.
But Ulster’s failure to qualify for the knock-out stages of the European Cup each season since winning the competition in 1999 has been an on-going source of frustration and a costly failure in terms of lost revenue.
A few weeks ago the chief executive told me that was costing Ulster at least £500,000 each season. Deprived of that sort of money, Ulster have not been able to woo top flight players. And they have lost a few because they could not afford to keep them.
But there was no hint of any imminent departure when he analysed Ulster’s crowd situation by saying: “People will perhaps come back to watch for a while when they see players giving their all. So we need the team to do that and we need to turn Ravenhill into a fortress once again.
“But the bottom line is that while we can have people doing their utmost to persuade others to come to matches, that is much harder if the team don’t perform.
“People don’t come back unless you give them a good reason to do so. You can’t blame them for that; nobody owes us anything. It’s up to us to provide a product that makes them want to be part of it, either as sponsors or spectators.
“We have a team of seven in marketing and communications and I can tell you that their job is a lot easier if we’re winning matches,” Reid said.
Acknowledging the loyalty of the Ravenhill spectators, he added: “People have been very good to us in continuing to come out to offer their support. We’re very fortunate in that respect.”
Half of Ulster’s income is raised through sponsorship, corporate and hospitality. The balance comes from gate receipts, making backsides on seats a vital part of the Ulster Rugby equation.
He cited full houses of 12,000 for the three ERC Pool games and the Magners League clashes with Leinster and Munster matches coupled with an average of 10,000 for each of the others as representing viability. After yesterday, however, that is no longer his problem or responsibility.
The timing of his departure on the eve of the start of the Magners League will undoubtedly lead to questions as to why now rather than during the summer, which would have given time for a successor to be appointed.
Announcing his departure yesterday, Reid said: “I am greatly fulfilled by the career I have had at the helm of the Ulster Branch but feel the time is now right for me to step down and pursue other interests.
“We have achieved a great deal in establishing a successful Ulster Rugby brand, have enjoyed Celtic and European success on the pitch and the game generally across the province is in a healthy state.''
Ulster Branch president, Cecil Watson, paid tribute to him “for the considerable contribution he has made to professional and domestic rugby in the province,” adding, “Michael's commitment, dedication and expertise have enabled Ulster to achieve significant successes during a demanding transition to professional rugby. We thank him for all that Ulster achieved during his tenure.''
IRFU chief executive Philip Browne said: “Michael Reid pursued his duties as Ulster Branch CEO with great dedication over the challenging period as the professional game evolved and he can take great personal credit for the achievements of Ulster Rugby, on and off the playing pitch.”
What Ulster needs now
By Niall Crozier
With the shockwaves gathering momentum in the aftermath of Michael Reid’s dramatic announcement of his October 31 departure as Ulster Rugby’s Chief Executive, already the powers that be will be thinking about a successor.
They will realise the importance of appointing the right person to what is a key job. Professional rugby is a business and the Chief Executive’s role is to run it as such and to attract and generate money.
There are others to tend to matters relating to on-field rugby football.
In the current fiscal climate, cash is not plentiful. The business community is suffering in the face of the recession, so the task will not be easy. It will require considerable powers of persuasion, very good contacts, an abundance of charm and all the skills of good salesmanship.
We have to get this one right. The future wellbeing of this province’s professional club is what is at stake and that being the case there cannot be any mistakes.