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Exeter Chiefs chairman warns of ‘serious’ problems amid COVID-19

Tony Rowe, chairman and chief executive of English Premiership rugby union club Exeter Chiefs, has stressed the importance of fans returning to matches as teams struggle to cope with the financial difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Premiership resumes on Friday after a five-month absence and Rowe has warned that some clubs will face serious problems if there is no “decent” revenue coming in by the start of 2021.

Rowe, whose Exeter side sits top of the Premiership, has been discussing the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on the sport, with the Chiefs having lost £3m (€3.3m/$3.9m) during the months of April, May and June.

The club is still losing around £1m a month and even though matches are set to resume, teams’ finances will not be boosted by match-day revenue as no fans will be in attendance.

Rowe said: “Sandy Park, as a business, has already had to cancel over £1m in corporate business from banquets, conferences and dinners and right now I can’t see when they will come back, so it’s eating into our reserves pretty quickly.

“Everybody has held up Exeter as the ideal business and a profitable club because we have Sandy Park Conference and Banqueting that pays the day-to-day bills and then we have all these bums on seats for match days. However, for the last five months that’s been a millstone around our necks. At the moment, we can’t earn any revenue, yet our outgoings remain the same.

“What was to a degree our ‘golden goose’ in having Sandy Park pay the bills and the overheads, whilst the match days were the big earners, both of those income streams have currently gone.”

Rowe added that while central funding comes from TV rights deals, league sponsors and money from the Rugby Football Union (RFU), the main source of income is ticket sales.

“Most of the clubs will have worked out how long they can survive, but if we can’t get some decent revenue coming in by the New Year, we’ve got serious problems,” he said. “Here at Exeter, because we have been commercially sound for the last 20-odd years, we’re fortunate we’ve been able to lean back on some of our assets to help raise the funds we need to keep going, but I do fear for some of the other clubs.”

Addressing Exeter’s ticketing situation, Rowe added: “Next month we had to refund those people who asked for their money back from tickets sold this season. Thankfully, there were a number of season ticket holders who gifted their money back to the club and for that gesture we are incredibly thankful.

“Our pre-sales for season tickets next season are also good, over 80 per cent, but that all hinges on us getting people in for the start of the season on November 20. If that doesn’t happen, we’ll be paying more money back and there will be no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Image: Derek Harper/Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)/Edited for size