Bernard Jackman: Coronavirus could change landscape of professional rugby

Bernard Jackman: Coronavirus could change landscape of professional rugby
Jackman:"I think you’ll end up back to levels of five or six years ago pretty quickly and probably, maybe, less professionals.”

Bernard Jackman has warned that players’ salaries will shrink to levels last seen half a decade ago as the world of rugby comes to grips with the financial consequences of the current crisis.

The sport is only one small chapter in what is a global fallout but its difficulties as a result of it all serve as a useful example as to just how far-reaching the coronavirus pandemic and government actions taken to combat it will be.

The IRFU has announced pay deferrals of between 10% and 50% for all its staff, players included, and it has also pledged a hardship fund of €500,000 to clubs crippled by the loss of revenue. Its sister unions around the world have taken similar steps, where possible.

Rugby Australia is in dire financial straits, USA Rugby is filing for bankruptcy, and the professional club game is reeling from the same blows. 

Making all this worse is the uncertainty over when the current emergency can end and society can begin to return to something approaching normal.

Jackman, who has played and/or coached rugby in Ireland, Wales, and France has seen first-hand how the professional game lives from month to month and he isn’t alone in seeing hard times ahead for a sector that already had plenty of financial worries.

“It could be a virus that could change the landscape of professional rugby and whether that leads to a world season, or whether it leads to certain clubs going out of business, or a restructured fixture list for Super Rugby etc, with a lot of the travel taken out... It’s going to be far-ranging.

To be honest, I don’t think anyone has clarity on where it’s going to lead to but, from a coaching and a player point of view, there’s going to be a readjustment of salaries, for sure.

"I think you’ll end up back to levels of five or six years ago pretty quickly and probably, maybe, less professionals.”

There is no manual with a step-by-step guide on how to overcome this magnitude of adversity but Jackman did experience a more localised form of overnight chaos when he was head coach of Grenoble and the club’s main benefactor Serge Kampf passed away.

The Top 14 side had already used its budget for the following season when it happened. 

The board insisted the situation was recoverable and that a gap of €3m could be filled and that other sponsors would step up. They didn’t and the gap was actually closer to €5m.

80% of player contracts had already been agreed by then and, while the admin staff agreed to a 10% pay cut, the playing staff was split and that caused serious ructions in the group. 

Some, inevitably, had to be hawked to clubs elsewhere.

“But the market now would be different,” said Jackman, an ambassador for the Feed The Heroes campaign. 

“Everybody is in the same boat but in France at the time we were able to sell players for transfer fees but you’re looking at the majority of clubs now won’t be in a position to do that.

“It wasn’t pretty but it was a different situation. 

"We were probably the only ones that season who were financially caught whereas now I think the vast majority of clubs, bar Racing or someone like that, are going to be affected by this.”

The potential consequences from all this are frightening. 

The sponsorship market, as it was in the last recession, is destined to shrink in the wake of all this. 

The ever-escalating value of TV rights is another area destined for some realignment. Jobs will be lost.

The knock-on effect for coaches and players is likely to be less money and squads far more reliant on up-and-coming and cheaper players from the academies but the question is what it will mean in terms of the work that is asked of them.

Rugby had been grappling with the slippery issue of a global calendar long before Covid-19 reared its ugly head with all sorts of sectional interests at play between club and country, one hemisphere against another or players on one side and administrators on the other.

I wouldn’t like to be a commercial officer in a rugby club at the moment trying to accurately predict what your revenue streams will look like in 12 months.

“It is a great opportunity to look at the season and try to create a model which is going to be sustainable from a player’s point of view, in terms of travel and games, but also from a financial point of view, in terms of being able to develop the tier two and tier three countries.”

Similar hopes have been expressed for the crowded calendars in other sports, including soccer, tennis, and golf, but it’s hard to see clubs and unions that are desperate to make up the lost ground and revenue agreeing to a slimmed down schedule down the line.

The French were already having a debate about expanding their top flight by two teams into a Top 16 before this all happened. 

There is no getting away from the fact that opening a stadium’s gates is the quickest means of making money. The more times that happens the more cash comes in.

“It’s a strange time,” said Jackman. 

“I wouldn’t like to be a commercial officer in a rugby club at the moment trying to accurately predict what your revenue streams will look like in 12 months. 

"I mean, you might as well be picking numbers out of the sky.”

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