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Q&A – Jason Whittingham: We’ll ride out the storm but we need help from Treasury

Worcester Warriors co-owner Jason Whittingham tells NEALE HARVEY why he and business partner Colin Goldring are totally committed to safeguarding the future of their club in the face of some huge challenges.

You met sports minister Nigel Huddleston at Sixways recently, were you encouraged by his visit?

As MP for Mid Worcestershire, Nigel had already put in a call through the council to visit because he wanted a decent sized stadium on his patch to put itself forward to support the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. We’d planned that for late October, but with what’s going on we need to make sure we’re actually around in 2022 so it gave us a chance to bring that forward and talk to him, not just about our club but the crisis facing this sport. The timing was good because while the government had announced there’d be no crowds for the foreseeable future, they are looking at support packages for clubs. Nigel is minister for sport and tourism and he wants to make sure that his club and his community have a good future. It was a very positive meeting and a great opportunity for me and Colin Goldring to put forward a strong case for the club and the sport. Not many clubs are in good financial shape right now and most rely on benevolent owners to dip their hands in their pockets.

What did you try to impress upon the minister?

We talked through the fact that our clubs are more than just a place where a ball gets kicked about on a weekend. They are assets in their community, a centre part who do lots of good work through the foundations and community projects. At Worcester, we’re very much a ‘keep it local, source it local’ club and we generate a lot of employment through our own business and local supply chains. We’re a far-reaching community asset and Colin and I have long held the view that sports clubs really do belong to the community, but right now we need a bit of support back and the loyalty we’ve had from fans, sponsors and suppliers has been great. Everybody understands that this is a very unique position we find ourselves in with Covid-19 and while we came into this two years ago with our eyes wide open around the losses the Worcester Warriors business could sustain, round one of Covid in March took that to another level and the recent announcement by the government over crowds took it to yet another level again.

For Nigel Huddleston to see the reality of how important this club is to the community was extremely valuable and other local MPs have also been in touch to ask what we need from them. I’ve told them, ‘I need you to be vocal in your support of any proposals put forward to the treasury to help rugby’. Most clubs have got several local MPs shouting in their corner so I’m hopeful we’ll get a favourable response.

Why should rugby deserve a rescue package given the huge salaries lavished on some players?

Yes, there’s an element of excess in rugby and some of the marquee players, but as a sport we have already taken measures to review this. We have reduced the salary cap from 2021/22, there will be a reduction in one of the marquee players and we’ve also got staff and squads on 25 per cent reductions in salary, so it’s not like we’re sitting here with caps in our hands having not taken any action ourselves. We’re doing everything we can, working with the RPA, PGB and RFU to make sure we also do our part in reducing outgoings.

How critical is it for Worcester to get crowds back?

We need a mix of two things. First, there’s the element of what crowds we can safely get back into Sixways? Sixways, like all rugby and football stadiums, has around ten versions of what a Covid-safe crowd might look like and depending on the circumstances we could accommodate anywhere between 500 and 7,000. Leicester and Bristol could probably accommodate 10,000-plus and still keep distance between people. There’s a balance to be had between that and the second thing, which is what level of support package the government can provide. They’re not going to say our doors can open fully and have normal crowds, so it’s all about a balancing act between what the government focus group says we can have in, offset by any package they can offer. As a group of Premiership clubs, we submitted our request last Tuesday so I’m hopeful we will get a fair hearing.

How long could Worcester survive without any help?

We’ve got several scenarios and a lot of it depends on what level of government support we get and what else they can offer in terms of sympathy and understanding from HMRC around tax deferrals and holidays. In the majority of cases we believe Premiership clubs will get through this, but there’s always a doomsday scenario and if in six months’ time the landscape is considerably worse, then it will be looking tough – very tough! But I remain confident Warriors will get through this.

Personally, how hard have the last six or seven months been?

I remember driving away from Sixways on March 18, the day the government announced they were withdrawing emergency support to stadiums which killed off our crowds, and wondering when I might ever go back. Our next game would have been Gloucester at home – a sell-out 11,000 crowd – but that game got cancelled and it sank in how uncertain our future was. We had some very tangible plans that included the development of 39 acres of our site at Sixways. There’s been something waiting to be built here for the last 20 years and we had clear plans and support for it, then suddenly along comes lockdown and the bottom drops out of the market. I’ve always been an optimist and confident that Worcester would get through this because we’ve got enough support around us and enough enterprise, energy and passion to make things happen. But who knows what it’s going to be like in another 12 months? So much of what’s happening with this pandemic is completely out of our control. How quickly does the infection rate move? Which way will it move? It leaves you with an empty, helpless feeling and there’s the immediate concern for all the people that we employ and the businesses we take supplies from and who rely heavily upon us.

You’re in the unique position of owning Morecambe Football Club too, so can you give us a flavour of the numbers of people and weight of responsibility involved?

Morecambe FC is in a similar boat to Warriors in that it loses money, but again we were on a trajectory there to break even and we’d had a load of non-sporting events planned that would have helped us to achieve that. These are the things that underpin most clubs in generating income but all those opportunities have been taken off the table. At Worcester, we have 200 full-time staff, including our first team management, squad and academy, while on a matchday we’d have another 250 casual staff, so there’s quite a lot of people who rely on us for income. At Morecambe, there’d be another 90 staff so your immediate concern goes to keeping people gainfully employed at a time when the jobs market is extremely difficult. You have this obligation to look after other people but sometimes in business people forget you’re human as well and I’ve got a family and bills to pay, along with the responsibility for the best part of 300 full-time staff at Worcester and Morecambe. It’s one thing having a sports club as a business, but you’ve got a whole community attached to it and in the case of Worcester we’re the biggest sporting asset in the county. It’s quite a task.

Worcester have been a loss-making club, presumably you had plans to be sustainable that are in danger of being wrecked?

We did. It was a three-year plan that involved the development of Sixways and an improvement of our non-sporting income. It involved bringing a football team – Worcester Raiders – to accelerate it but rather than stick our heads in the sand and hope the Covid problems go away, we’ve been looking at ways to move things on. Raiders played their first game here last Tuesday and they’re allowed 300 fans at the moment, so that’s a start and hopefully their crowds will build alongside ours and start generating more income. Making Sixways a multi-sport venue was always at the heart of our plans and now we’ve got another 23 matchdays, so why wouldn’t we do that and continue trying to build?

What other plans are there for the Sixways site?

The council have been very engaged with us during Covid and they see progressing the potential of the Sixways site as a good news story. We’ve set up a site board with key stakeholders from around the county and we have a master site plan that everyone thinks is on the money. There’ll be no housing but we’re looking at a hotel, conference centre, medical facility and office space which, along with some retail opportunities, will create a destination for people to come to and be a real plus point for Worcester situated alongside the M5. We’re at quite an advanced stage and when Colin and I bought into Worcester two years ago, it was with a development like this in mind which makes the club a sustainable operation because we’re not prepared to keep sustaining losses of £3m-£6m every year.

Optimist: Worcester Warriors co-owner Jason Whittingham

Has the CVC money now gone?

We’d already invested a lot of that in ground improvements – new screens, new lighting, new PA system, wi-fi etc. We’ve refurbished all our executive boxes, upgraded all the audio/visual equipment around spectator areas and lounges and we’d used that money to support a whole load of improvements to the matchday experience before some tough times started in March.

Would you be open to CVC increasing their stake in return for another cash injection?

It depends what’s tabled. Everything’s worth discussing at the moment.

How have you dealt with players and coaches through this period?

We’ve been very engaged with all our coaches, players and staff. It involved countless zoom calls and we’ve made sure the dialogue and reassurances have been coming from Colin and I as owners. While other people would be capable of delivering messages, we believe it’s more impactful coming from us because as owners we’re totally engaged with the business. The coaches and players all know that Colin, below, and I are pretty transparent and we’ve been open and honest with them, which is why we had a good negotiation over salary cuts. We worked closely with the RPA over that, along with our leadership group and all of the players. People will always worry, particularly when an announcement comes that no one foresaw about no crowds, but we’ve just got on with it and we will get through this.

You must be very pleased with the crop of young players coming through under Alan Solomons?

I did an interview after we managed to extend Ted Hill’s contract last year in which I said he’s been a catalyst in movement for this club. Worcester always lost their best and brightest players from our academy, which has always been a vibrant and flourishing one, but last year Ted’s re-signing changed all that. Since then we’ve retained Ollie Lawrence, Will Butler and all our other promising young guys. Noah Heward, Nick David, Beck Cutting – we’ve got a core of Worcester men and that’s always been the vision of Alan Solomons. That’s what we’re building and when you couple that with some of the more experienced guys we’ve got, it’s pretty good for the future of Worcester. If you talk to the players, particularly the younger ones, they know change is happening and we expect to see an improvement in our league position.

Does it bug you to see Worcester’s name in the media so often in relation to being one of the likeliest candidates to go bust?

Our name will always appear until they decide there’s someone else to pick on. It doesn’t deflect us from the plan or trajectory we’re on and Colin and I are absolutely committed to making Worcester a sustainable club – one that delivers more consistent, top six rugby.

Where do you stand on scrapping promotion and relegation?

To a degree that may be decided by where the Championship ends up. There’s no clear start date there yet so where is anybody going to be relegated to? From a Premiership club owner’s point of view, it makes perfect sense to ring-fence because nine times out of ten the relegated club comes back up. It costs you £3m-£4m and then the cycle starts again. What’s the point of that? Also, from a business perspective, it makes no sense to have relegation while so few clubs are equipped to come the other way. Then there’s the other side where everyone loves a good relegation fight. As far as I’m concerned, the sensible thing would be to have a moratorium.

Maybe the obvious thing to do is promote Saracens and Ealing, go to 14, scrap the Premiership Cup and have 26 games. Thoughts on that?

It may well make sense to do that and lots of options have been considered.

Confident the 2020/21 season will start on time and be completed?

At the moment, yes. We’ve been able to play up to now because we’ve been testing every player, every week. As long as we can find a sensible way forward with testing, because it’s not cheap, there’s no reason to be pessimistic about starting the 2020/21 season. But until we get an understanding of whether we’re heading into another deeper lockdown there are still lots of moving parts and things can change quickly.

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