Chairman Land on the financial impact of Covid-19 on Weston RFC

Weston Rugby Club changing room ahead of their game with Exmouth.

Weston Rugby Club changing room ahead of their game with Exmouth last season. - Credit: Josh Thomas

Peter Land has shared exclusively with the Weston Mercury the financial impact that Covid-19 has had on Weston RFC.

This week marks one year since the country was put into lockdown in the government's bid to tackle the coronavirus.

And Land, who recently celebrated 30 years as a police officer, has been associated with the club since his children started playing in 2008-9.

He became chairman in 2019 after serving as the Junior section chair and so far, he has yet to oversee a complete season under his tenure.

"The immediate answer might be obvious but at our club I do not think that we have seen the full impact yet," he said.

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"Contrary to opinion elsewhere I can assure you we are not a wealthy club, and for some time we have found balancing the books difficult. I do not think we are unique in this respect at any grassroots level sport.

"Next season we will be venturing into the unknown and starting afresh as if we were a start-up club."

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As the country gets ready to come out of its third nationwide lockdown, March 23 marked the moment when Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced all should stay at home to save lives.

And rugby, approaching a critical time with clubs fighting for promotion and battling to avoid the drop, saw everything come to a standstill.

Weston were on their best run in 19 years and on course to fight for a place in the National League Two South for 2020-21, but all that ended following Johnson's decision.

"Typically, our turnover must be around £250,000 just to break even for the year, it takes very little to upset that balance and it takes a lot to restore it," added Land.

"One breakdown or unanticipated expense turns black to red very quickly. A year ago, quite correctly the season was brought to an early conclusion but there was an almost immediate financial impact as several lucrative events were cancelled.

"The events typically raised enough funds to see the club through the fallow summer break, when curiously the club pretty much shut its doors to any external income.

"Grants became available, the amount of which were dependant on the rateable value of your property. We were in the wrong band and whilst the revaluation meant more money at some point, we will be paying a higher rate back to the council for years to come."

However, what was supposed to be a couple of weeks turned into four months of being stuck inside before the sport of Rugby Union was allowed to train again.

Despite, all the doom and gloom the RFU announced plans to decide on how the 2019-20 season would end, confirming standings would be calculated on a best playing record formula and Weston were awarded second place, their best finish since 2002-3.

Weston Rugby Club after their 38-29 home victory over Brixham

Weston Rugby Club after their 38-29 home victory over Brixham last season. - Credit: Josh Thomas

The sport was then put into Stage B, which meant groups of up to six were allowed to exercise, but at all times had to ensure there would be no face-to-face contact and equipment sharing was kept to a minimum, with training allowed to return in June in light of RFU's proposed roadmap.

"The summer was a bit frantic as the nation struggled to find the balance that kept infection rates down and the virus itself mutated," said Land.

"We all found that social distancing was relative to an individual's tolerance of alcohol and respect for the regulations. My colleagues in the police experienced this on a daily basis during their duties.

"As a club we had to manage this too, our members and their families are our lifeblood and we were bowled over by the support on occasions but the regulations imposed a kind of sterility and at times there was a need for interventions that once would have been unnecessary.  

"Hastily arranged events brought in some income but the necessity to provide additional staffing to comply with regulations along with many members simply staying away meant that we were working hard to break even. Opening our doors worked strategically but not always financially.

"Halfway through our financial year membership, subscriptions were down by 25 per cent and our income was 25 per cent of where we needed to be.

"Now here is the rub of the winter lockdown, whilst it may be our saviour now, it may also be our downfall and along with it many other businesses too.

"Shutting down has effectively reduced our outgoings to an absolute minimum and the grants have ensured bills are getting paid.

"What we do not know is whether our business will perform in a manner which will allow us to meet our commitments once the grants cease. Neither do we know if members, spectators, and sponsors will return to watch the game or support the club in the long term."

But there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel with Johnson's announcement regarding grassroots team sports being allowed to return from March 29.

Rugby clubs can hold contact training sessions, excluding scrums and mauls, and host Ready4Rugby, O2 Touch and Tag rugby matches with others ahead of possibly returning to league action this autumn.

Whilst the off-field team have worked remarkably hard during lockdown, Sam Waterman, Darren Crompton and Dan Denning will hopefully be able to build on this platform of enthusiasm and proactivity.

"Our return to a £250,000 annual turnover must be almost instant in readiness for grants ceasing in September," Land said.

"In a survey only two per cent of members were correct in estimating the income necessary to sustain the club, meaning 98 per cent underestimated the amount it costs to run the club.

"Translated, this means members and supporters may go elsewhere to socialise in the mistaken belief that the club will be okay.

"The pandemic has not all been about negative impact. We have taken stock of how we operate; our inefficiencies were addressed in a business-like manner and this did mean letting staff go who were not performing as expected.

"I suspect that we have been more tolerant in the past, but our margins simply cannot afford it now. I can assure you this has not been a pleasant experience for anyone.

"Whilst an aging clubhouse cannot be helped, there was no excuse for clutter and untidiness, the club stage was almost part of the club's history but in today's world it needed a risk assessment that we could simply not apply.

"It also occupied a chunk of floor space that represented lost revenue, so we have been busy making the most out of what we have, adding an extra 20 square meters to the floor plan.

"I do not think that we have done anything extraordinary, the effects of the global pandemic have brought on a period of proactivity and the break from rugby has forced the club to revise the way it runs its affairs and presents itself to those that avail themselves of its facilities.

"If we were a ship at sea, then I think we have been damaged by the storm, made some running repairs to the rudder and we are now limping towards the port for a refit."

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