Solvency of Irish union, provinces hinges on return of fans - IRFU boss

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Irish rugby’s governing body and its four provincial teams will have to drastically cut costs if a reasonable level of fans are not allowed return to grounds in the next 12 months, the Irish Rugby Football Union’s (IRFU) chief executive said on Friday.

Irish sport has been almost entirely played behind closed doors since the first outbreak of COVID-19 in March and only professional teams can currently train and play after the imposition of the highest level of restrictions this week.

“Whilst the provinces and the IRFU are currently solvent, that ultimately is a time limited situation,” Philip Browne said in the IRFU’s annual report which showed that the union recorded a 35.7 million euro ($42.27 million) deficit for the 15 months to end-July.

“Unless there is a return to some level of normality within the next 12 months, with matches being played in front of some reasonable level of paying spectators, the IRFU and the provinces will have to drastically cut their budgets to ensure costs are covered by the lower revenues.”

The government hopes to return to Level 3 restrictions by Dec. 1, which would still ban fans. A further easing to Level 2 would permit up to 200 people in 5,000-plus capacity venues and possibly more for large national and international events.

Browne said the IRFU has availed of all state supports, cut players wages and introduced a four-day week for all non-playing staff to “buy time” until the end of the year.

The 35.7 million euro deficit compared to a record 28 million euro surplus in 2019, although that covered 12 months before the IRFU changed its accounting period to align with the rugby season.

The 2020 deficit included the added three months of player and management costs totalling 4.8 million euros but also an 8.3 million euro drop in income and a 16 million euro bad debt charge relating to the impact of COVID-19 on the four provinces.

The union is working on an appropriate financial package to assist Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht, it said.

Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Christian Radnedge