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No solution to empty stands: Leinster's move a timely warning for future of rugby

 

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BLOW: Leinster head coach Leo Cullen (left) and senior coach Stuart Lancaster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

BLOW: Leinster head coach Leo Cullen (left) and senior coach Stuart Lancaster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

BLOW: Leinster head coach Leo Cullen (left) and senior coach Stuart Lancaster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Above all, there was one line in Leinster's lengthy statement confirming their decision to cancel sales of 2020/'21 season tickets that stood out.

"With social distancing now likely to remain a part of sporting and other spectator events for some time to come... it was not feasible to accommodate over 12,800 season ticket holders for next season in the RDS," it read.

With one line, the province burst whatever bubble of optimism the IRFU's announcement of a return to play on Friday generated.

In fairness to Philip Browne and the union, there was no attempt to sugarcoat the devastating financial impact the current shutdown is having on rugby across the world.

And, while getting back on the field of play is a priority, the fact that that field will be surrounded by empty stands means that the financial impact will still be sizeable.

Browne confirmed that, while the union would lose between €15m-€20m in revenue if the remaining Six Nations matches and November internationals do not go ahead, it would still lose between €10-15m if fans were not permitted to attend.

In France, the Top 14 chief Paul Goze yesterday told 'Le Figaro' that games behind closed doors or with small crowds until Christmas would lead to "a tsunami" of clubs going out of business and "the end of professional rugby in France" without state aid.

While such language has not yet been used in Ireland, the picture painted by both Browne and Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson is not a pretty one, as the prospect of a long period with substantially reduced income looms.

What's happening this season?

Leinster have decided to issue refunds for their four remaining fixtures this season against Zebre, Munster, Saracens and Cardiff Blues. Fans with season tickets will have their accounts credited; fans who bought standalone tickets will get refunds through Ticketmaster.

What about next season?

Season tickets for the RDS were supposed to go on sale in March, but having delayed that sale the province decided to cancel it yesterday. 

"It was a decision that was very difficult to take. We were meant to go on sale in March, but when this pandemic unfolded with the uncertainty over matches next year we didn't have a product to market or sell so we felt it was better to cancel at this stage," Dawson said. "If the landscape changes, we can always revisit it."

They'll remain at the front of the queue for season tickets whenever crowds are allowed back at the Ballsbridge venue, while they're being invited to join Leinster's new membership scheme.

What's that?

As a way to offset the loss of season ticket revenue, Leinster are offering fans the chance to become members of Leinster Rugby which will give them the chance to buy tickets if crowds are allowed back on a limited basis.

While matches will first go ahead behind closed doors, rugby officials hope that they can slowly reintroduce fans as they go on a phased basis. Leinster have not yet revealed the cost of their new scheme.

What about the other provinces?

Leinster are the first movers in this field, but their rival provinces are sure to follow suit. Connacht had already started selling season tickets and are now reviewing the situation and could introduce a similar scheme.

Munster already have a membership scheme and they "are awaiting further details from Guinness PRO14 on how the proposed fixtures will impact on the original 2019/'20 fixture list".

Ulster issued an update to season ticket holders last week, advising them to hold on to their tickets until a decision is made.

How will it impact my team?

Gate receipts and the commercial income generated on match-day is the lifeblood of Irish rugby.

So the prospect of a long period behind closed doors or with reduced attendances is deeply concerning. 

The loss of the gate revenue from the Heineken Cup quarter-final showdown against Saracens alone will cost Leinster around €500,000.

And Dawson warned that the province's ability to fund the domestic game to the tune of €4m will be at risk as a result.

Browne admitted last Friday that players' wages are now at risk, while wider budgets could also be squeezed.