Exeter owner Rowe warns club rugby faces financial ruin unless fans return soon

The owner of English rugby’s top club has warned that the Premiership elite face financial ruin unless fans are allowed back into games soon.

Exeter boss Tony Rowe spelt out the nightmare scenario in response to a report which claimed attendances at sporting events could be restricted to between 1,000 and 2,500 from October 1, depending on the coronavirus infection rate. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden meets sports bodies today.

“We need 10,000 bums on seats each game to break even – and we don’t have the overheads of some other clubs,” he said.

“So if they’re saying crowds are going to be limited to 2,500, we’re going to say we don’t want any fans in, because a crowd of that size costs us more than playing behind closed doors and we’re already losing £1 million a month.

“Times that by all the Premiership clubs – they’re probably losing the same – and we’re going to be dead. The clubs financially are going to be dead.”

Rowe’s dire warning was echoed by Gloucester chief executive Lance Bradley who told BBC Radio 4: “We simply have to get fans back in reasonable numbers as soon as possible to ensure the game survives.

"We wouldn't be able to make it through the season if we were only allowed crowds of 2,500. In the end, that would be a disaster.”

Gloucester hosted English rugby’s second crowd pilot match on Monday night with 1,000 spectators allowed into Kingsholm for the visit of Harlequins.

Exeter, who top the Premiership and take on Northampton this Sunday for a place in the European Cup semi-finals, are the one club in England’s top flight to have made professional rugby pay.

At least they were before the pandemic struck.

“We haven’t had our accounts finalised but for last year, which finished at the end of June, we will post a loss for the first time in our history,” said Rowe. “And a big loss. We are talking about millions, not 100s of 1000s.”

Rowe still has 40 staff on furlough and says that unless they are allowed to get numbers back into their conferencing facilities, as well as their stands, he is going to have to “do the unthinkable” and make people redundant.

“I’ve been a businessman since I left the Royal Marines 50 years ago and for the first time I feel totally hopeless because I can’t do anything to change the situation,” he added.

“I think people think we wander around with £20 notes falling out of our pockets. We don’t.

“I know the government are trying to protect us all. But financially we will be dead if they don’t allow us to have some sort of numbers back in the ground.”

Rowe’s stark admission was echoed by London Irish owner Mick Crossan, while Worcester stressed the “need” to have full grounds again “as soon as possible”.

A Warriors statement read: “Even before the Covid-19 pandemic the majority of clubs were not sustainable on the revenue generated from gate receipts alone. So any restriction on numbers is bound to have a serious adverse impact on income streams.

“During the lockdown period we have been humbled by the support and generosity shown by our commercial partners, season ticket holders and supporters but we need to be able to welcome them back and have full grounds again as soon as possible.

We believe that during the lockdown the appetite for live sport has grown which gives us optimism that we will be able to increase our crowds with the reassurance of the measures that have been put in place to ensure a safe and secure stadium.”

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