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Ulster Rugby's well-laid plans ripped up by Covid-19 pandemic, says CEO Jonny Petrie



Ulster Rugby chief executive Jonny Petrie

Ulster Rugby chief executive Jonny Petrie

Ulster Rugby chief executive Jonny Petrie

Ulster Rugby chief executive Jonny Petrie has spoken of the challenge facing his organisation after seeing two of their main revenue streams effectively wiped out "in a matter of days" by the coronavirus pandemic.

The province have not taken to the field since February 22 and have already announced that they will not be in a position to put season tickets on sale for the 2020/21 campaign due to social distancing uncertainty.

While they have been cleared to return to training on June 29 ahead of the resumption of competitive games at the end of August, those first contests will be played behind-closed-doors.

As such, there will naturally be no ticketing revenue incoming with the financial hurdles still to be overcome by the sport here laid bare yesterday when Rugby Players Ireland released a statement saying they were "very disappointed" to see the IRFU's hopes for a 20% player wage cut appearing in media reports before any substantial negotiations.

With talks also due today to further shape hopes for an aligned global calendar, 2020 could soon be viewed as a year bringing the most seismic change since the game went professional in 1995.

"In the run up to Covid-19, we had the club's business plan and growth strategy really clearly planned out, we were performing well and had reached the Heineken Cup quarter-final," Petrie said.

Petrie was speaking to a Glandore webinar entitled ‘The Challenges of Running a Sporting Business Through Covid-19’.

He added: “So we had all this momentum being generated and this forward-thinking outlook, which in a way was pulled out from under our feet in a matter of days, and we had to change our goals and our focus to how are we going to survive this, but I think that’s something that a lot of businesses will have experienced during this period.

“The very nature of a sporting business is that revenue is directly generated from match sales and ticket sales. We have rugby and non-rugby related revenues, with rugby, it is tickets, sponsorships, season ticket sales and then our non-rugby revenues would be mostly events and conferences held within the stadium.

“When two of your main streams of income are effectively gone like that, it means you have to look at expenditure and that has been difficult.

“We are a not for profit company but still have commercial responsibilities, so striking that balance has been a challenge.

“How you act now is a measure of how you will be viewed in the future by people so how we deal with people now is a big part of what we do, so we are hoping to emerge from this being viewed in a positive light and can focus on recovery,  growth and moving forward.”

The weeks ahead will at least bring with them some sort of return to normality when it comes to his players and their day-to-day habits.

“For our high performance athletes, structure is everything and they’re so used to having everything planned out to a tee all the time week to week, when that’s gone, it’s difficult, you have to find a way of keeping them together, motivated and connected,” Petrie said. “When we do come back, we want to come back and be able to make an impact quickly, across all aspects of the club, so everyone needs to be able to do that.”

The IRFU and Rugby Players Ireland were able to negotiate a sliding-scale wage deferral system at the beginning of the sporting shutdown but that arrangement will come to a close at the end of this month.

Talks are scheduled for this week as the pair hope to avoid the same public enmity that has leaked from Australia and England but the weekend’s events set an ominous tone at the outset.

“We are very disappointed to see recent media reports about proposed player salary cuts,” the RPI statement read.

“We are in the very early phase of discussions with the IRFU to establish fully the current and long-term financial position of the Union and only then can the players consider any proposal.”

IRFU CEO Philip Browne has already outlined the losses expected by the union if the postponed Six Nations matches from earlier this year do not go ahead — in the region of 15-20million euro — with that figure only partially offset should the games take place behind closed doors.

Belfast Telegraph