It’s been a minute since we shared some letters to the rugby fans in this COVID season but fortunately the column is back stronger than ever. Today’s writer chooses to remain anonymous but the issues raised in here are those we shouldn’t ignore anymore. I won’t keep you waiting any longer- Dive in……

The corona virus pandemic has hit rugby around the world hard and Uganda is no exception.  The president of Uganda; Yoweri Kaguta Museveni issued a directive on March 17th banning all sporting activity in Uganda with immediate effect.  The following day, the Uganda Rugby Union (URU) issued a statement postponing all rugby activities including the Nile Stout premier league indefinitely. That was before a series of other statements on the future of the league that still seems unclear with Rugby Africa competitions suspended while World Rugby recently hinting at scrapping the international rugby calendar this year.

How has this affected Ugandan rugby players? Apart from being unable to have club training sessions and the remaining 5 weeks of the Nile Stout Premier league being in doubt, most premier league clubs pay some of, if not all, their players a monthly stipend/salary during the season as well as match day allowances. The men’s 15’s (and sometimes 7’s) national teams also pay players a monthly fee during their preparations for international engagements. Many working players use this to supplement their income while for students, it is a source of “pocket money”. But for a large number of Ugandan rugby players, this is their sole source of income and they are entirely dependent on this money for survival as they are neither gainfully employed nor self employed.  With the season suspended, it begged the question if clubs would continue to pay their players.  

Michael Okorach in action on the international sevens scene

A few days after the ban on sporting activities, the New Vision published an article where Michael Wokorach, Heathens and National 7’s team captain, appealed to all clubs to keep paying players their monthly salaries.  He revealed that Heathens planned to pay players’ monthly fees and there was a possibility of them advancing at least half their pay for April. Jinja Hippos responded to the article with a tweet, “In order to support our players through this time, today we disbursed allowances to our players for the next three weeks, while committing to the ongoing welfare of all of our players and coaching staff during this time.”

Despite no public response from other clubs, it is almost certain that the other 8 premiership clubs are doing something along the same vein.  As commendable as this may be on top of the efforts put in place by URU to provide some food for players in these tough times – how feasible is it really to pay players when no rugby is going on, and how long can clubs realistically keep this up without going broke?

A global perspective

Uganda is not the only country facing such a dilemma – the corona virus has exposed the unsustainable club rugby model globally.  Taking the current situation in England as an example, the rugby premiership was last month suspended for 5 weeks with a possible extension depending on the circumstances with regards to the impact of the pandemic. Match day income (gate takings, merchandise sale, income from broadcasters etc) contributes to about 30% of professional clubs revenue and faced with the prospect of no games until September, clubs are struggling to stay afloat.  It is estimated that each club loses between £300,000 and £500,000 (approximately 1.4 and 2.3 billion Uganda shillings) in revenue for any matches that do not take place so if the season is cancelled some clubs would face financial ruin.

Exeter Chiefs was the only premiership club that turned a profit in the last financial year – all the other clubs recorded losses so, apart from Exeter, they last month announced up to 25% pay cuts for their players starting on April 1st.  However, despite players understanding why these measures are essential, this announcement has met with resistance from some players.

Players on the lower end of the pay scale and those whose contracts are not up for renewal have complained that individual circumstances and varying salaries of the players were not taken into account so many players will not accept the 25% reduction and are seeking legal advice. As clubs battle to meet their obligations to players and stay afloat, some are rethinking how they run their clubs.  London Irish is a premiership club owned by Mick Crossan, who has bankrolled the club since 2013, was recently quoted in the English media saying, “Last season cost me 4 million pounds (approximately 18 billion Ugandan shillings) and I can’t afford that. Club rugby has to change. We can’t keep relying on rich benefactors. It’s definitely not a sustainable business. Everyone’s suffering. This crisis may actually be a saving grace for club rugby, in the respect that everyone will hopefully now cut their cloth to suit their pockets.”

Mick Crossan

What’s the way forward

It is no secret that most rugby clubs in Uganda have limited sources of revenue – a few clubs rely on corporate sponsors; gate takings; selling club merchandise such as replica jerseys, t-shirts, wrist-wear etc; and bar sales but many rely on donations from individuals (usually the club members themselves, former players and fans) etc. Despite this narrow income source, many players rely on their clubs for survival and this has been exacerbated by clubs willingness to splash out money to buy players. Over the last years, competition for players among the premiership clubs in Uganda has become cut throat with clubs increasingly pulling out the stops to acquire the services of particular players, and players capitalizing on this by making demands that eat significantly into the budgets of clubs.

While this has benefited a small number of players, it has skewed the value of Ugandan rugby players resulting in teams being hard pressed to keep up with the increasingly unrealistic expectations of their players.  Rather than following the long term development model of player growth through the age grades and grassroots, clubs have taken to the quick fix approach of buying “ready made products” so more often than not, they lure players from other premiership teams or occasionally poach from the championship and regional sides. Prior to the corona period, clubs were already struggling to sustain this model with some benefactors complaining about the financial toll of supporting players who more often than not moved onto another club the following season if their demands were not met despite the significant investment in them.  On the other hand, players in some clubs were complaining about delayed/no pay or the disparity between the allowances/stipends/salaries received between players.  

With no rugby going on, many of the revenue avenues are no longer available to clubs and with the lock down starting to affect non-rugby businesses, many employees are not sure about getting their April salaries and the self employed have had a significantly reduced income, so donations from individuals have dried up.

How will clubs continue to pay players through April and if the lock down is further extended? 

10 million worth of chaos

Prior to the start of the Nile Stout premiership league, Nile Breweries had promised each of the premiership clubs 10 million Ugandan shillings that would be sent directly to their accounts instead of through URU as in the past.  This was a development welcomed by all clubs, particularly by those without corporate sponsors and some planned around that 10 million.

However, a few weeks into the league, none of the clubs had received the money but were instead hit by conditions set by URU that clubs had to fulfill before they could receive the 10 million.  To date, no club has received the 10 million as none have met all of URUs conditions but during this time, the 10 million would be a boost to the dwindling resources of all clubs, particularly to those without sponsors.

Other questions to ponder are whether the current model in Uganda is sustainable and if many of the stipends/salaries paid to players are justified? Will the Ugandan players who rely on rugby as a source of income take this as a lesson and find means to sustain themselves outside rugby?  Will this be an eye-opener for rugby clubs and a wake up call to develop reliable income generating activities independent of sponsorship and benefactors? Will clubs “cut their cloth to suit their pockets?”

It is no secret that most rugby clubs in Uganda have limited sources of revenue – a few clubs rely on corporate sponsors; gate takings; selling club merchandise such as replica jerseys, t-shirts, wrist-wear etc; and bar sales but many rely on donations from individuals (usually the club members themselves, former players and fans) etc.

Despite this narrow income source, many players rely on their clubs for survival and this has been exacerbated by clubs willingness to splash out money to buy players.  Over the last years, competition for players among the premiership clubs in Uganda has become cut throat with clubs increasingly pulling out the stops to acquire the services of particular players, and players capitalising on this by making demands that eat significantly into the budgets of clubs.  While this has benefited a small number of players, it has skewed the value of Ugandan rugby players resulting in clubs being hard pressed to keep up with the increasingly unrealistic expectations of their players. 

Rather than following the long term development model of player growth through the age grades and grassroots, clubs have taken to the quick fix approach of buying “ready made products” so more often than not they lure players from other premiership teams or occasionally poach from the championship and regional sides.  Prior to the corona pandemic, clubs were already struggling to sustain this model with some benefactors complaining about the financial toll of supporting players who more often than not moved onto another club the following season if their demands were not met despite the significant investment in them. 

On the other hand, players in some clubs were complaining about delayed/no pay or the disparity between the allowances/stipends/salaries received between players. 

With no rugby going on, many of the revenue avenues are no longer available to clubs and with the lock down starting to affect non-rugby businesses, many employees are not sure about getting their April salaries and the self employed have had a significantly reduced income, so donations from individuals have dried up.  How will clubs continue to pay players through April and if the lock down is further extended?  Prior to the start of the Nile Stout premiership league, Nile Breweries had promised each of the premiership clubs 10 million Ugandan shillings that would be sent directly to their accounts instead of through URU as in the past.  This was a development welcomed by all clubs, particularly by those without corporate sponsors and some planned around that 10 million.  However, a few weeks into the league, none of the clubs had received the money but were instead hit by conditions set by URU that clubs had to fulfil before they could receive the 10 million.  To date, no club has received the 10 million as none have met all of URUs conditions but during this time, the 10 million would be a boost to the dwindling resources of ALL clubs, particularly to those without sponsors. 

Other questions to ponder are whether the current model in Uganda is sustainable and if many of the stipends/salaries paid to players are justified? Will the Ugandan players who rely on rugby as a source of income take this as a lesson and find means to sustain themselves outside rugby?  Will this be an eye-opener for rugby clubs and a wake up call to develop reliable income generating activities independent of sponsorship and benefactors? Will clubs “cut their cloth to suit their pockets?”