EXCLUSIVE: Alan Robinson formed the Bears 23 years ago but faces huge central distribution reduction next season
Image: Courtesy of Coventry Bears)
Coventry Bears founder and owner Alan Robinson has warned that central funding cuts could mean the end of professional rugby league in the Midlands – and that the whole sport needs to take a forensic look at itself.
A reduced Super League TV deal from 2022 onwards mean clubs at all levels will face reductions in their central distribution, with Championship London Broncos announcing that they will move to a part-time squad next year as a direct result.
But those in the third tier League One will be hit the hardest. Those clubs are working on the basis of cuts of almost 80 percent in some cases, although the final figures have yet to be confirmed by the RFL, and Robinson – a former Ireland international prop – says that could be the death knell for the Bears despite the best season in their history this year.
Coventry have beaten more established rivals Keighley, Hunslet and Rochdale in 2021 to supplement an extensive community programme in the local area. The city will also host World Cup matches next year, but could do so without a professional club if Robinson’s worst fears are realised.
The Bears could lose around £60,000 in funding next year – more than their entire playing budget but less than a salary for an individual Super League player. Robinson says the loss will be crippling.
He explained: “This sort of blow is catastrophic, there’s no way to sugar coat it or beat around the bush. I don’t want to be negative because I’m not that sort of person, but it’s extremely frustrating when this is happening to such a new club doing everything the right way.
Courtesy of Coventry Bears)
“I’ve been very open about the fact that we heavily rely on central funding because that is our model – we are still establishing our business as a professional sports club. I know there are some people within the game that say that doesn’t constitute a professional club, but my argument to them would be how many other clubs have gone bust when owners stop pouring their money in?
“To me it’s about running your business accordingly, and such a large funding cut as this could mean the end of Coventry Bears, I want to be honest about that. How many new businesses could survive a loss in funding with such little time to establish itself? Other clubs have been around for decades. We are six years, including Covid, into the semi-pro game and we are a developing business not a millionaire’s play thing. There has to be room for true sustainability.
“We don’t have any debt, we cut our cloth accordingly and we pay a very modest match fee for our players with no guaranteed money. What comes alongside that is all the work that we carry out in the local community, the work were doing to provide a World Cup legacy in the area, and being in League One galvanises all of that. If we’re not going to be a League One club then I can’t see where the pathway is for another club in the Midlands.
“We’re supposed to be hosting Australia and Scotland in the World Cup, we have a really prominent Scottish international in Dave Scott who’s been inspirational for our team, and I’ve been into schools myself to coach youngsters and help deliver a legacy. For this to happen now is catastrophic for that – it will be embarrassing when we host Australia here next October.
“The progress we’ve made this year has been unbelievable – we’ve beaten Rochdale, Keighley and Hunslet and compounded that by doing the right thing and bringing players through. I look at Joe Batchelor at St Helens – he had a year with us, went to York and now look at him at Saints. That’s just one little story from a host of examples.
Courtesy of Coventry Bears)
“At the minute it looks like everyone is retreating to the north of England, protecting all their self interest and it’s heartbreaking. The sport needs to really challenge itself and look in the mirror.”
Robinson – who headed a group of students that founded the Bears in 1998 before entering the professional game in 2015 – is already considering potential ways to save the sport in the region, but questions whether the desire to support such a move would be there from elsewhere in rugby league.
“I’m looking at ways we can diversify the brand – do we make it a Midlands brand or a Birmingham brand to try and give it a wider and bigger appeal to the sport?” Robinson explained. “In Coventry we’re in a big market of sport and we’ve always worked hard to generate income, but maybe we need to be a bigger brand to survive. All of that needs to be calculated, researched and done in the right way.
“But would the other clubs in rugby league support that? I’m pretty confident that everybody in the sport respects what we bring to the table, but does rugby league think it needs the Midlands?
“I think it does. If we’re going to be a top five sport and be recognised as a truly national sport that grows the player pool, then rugby league needs the Midlands and the south. There is huge potential in our region with a huge amount of community participation and we are at the top of that triangle.
Courtesy of Coventry Bears)
“But it just feels like none of this is being considered in the bigger picture. Everybody is talking about reducing the number of teams in Super League to make it more exciting, and yes that might be part of the picture. But if we are truly to become a national sport that produces as many players as possible for England, then we need the Midlands and the south to expand in a sustainable way.
“It should be done within our means and growing in the new communities over time, which we are doing. But clearly we need longer. I’ve given everything to this sport and it’s an emotional time. We have to ask where Coventry Bears is going from here?”
Robinson says the timing of these funding cuts has worsened their impact. He added: “We still don’t know definitively where we stand with the RFL, we’re going off what we’ve been presented so far. The timing of the issue is the biggest problem. If I have time to do something and be positive then that’s what I’ll do.
“We are working hard at the moment to figure out ways in which we can generate new business, partners and sponsors. We will be developing a large campaign around a call to action for all our stakeholders and indeed any new stakeholders interested in supporting us. I would welcome anyone from the game to get in touch directly with me if they wish to support our survival.
“But at the moment how can I sign players and give them any kind of security? I just can’t do that – we’re a family business and for the sake of everyone involved I have to make some major decisions very soon. I don’t want it to be the end of Coventry Bears and rugby league in the Midlands, but that’s what it could be.
“If we need to be able to offer something more to sport and attract bigger sponsors then I’m prepared to try and achieve that, but not if it’s in vain and if rugby league doesn’t want to get behind the proper expansion of the game. I don’t want to blame the RFL as (chief executive) Ralph Rimmer and his staff have had a very difficult job the past 18 months and he gave us our first opportunity in 2015. He believed in us after years of sustainable development.
“We earned our place and do not want to fall back down the ladder as it would be just too far a fall after all the work put in and legacy achieved. I think it could well be an abrupt end unless we can gain some new support and find people in the game who believe in us be this new partners or sponsors.
“But this is the harsh reality of where we are and it feels like my heart’s getting ripped out. I’ve tried for the last 23 years to grow the sport and it feels like we could be at a catastrophic end. I don’t wait it to be the end but what can we do with such a huge drop in funding? I’m not sure whether the penny has fully dropped with other people but it well and truly has with me.”