BBC BLOGS - Matt Slater
« Previous | Main

Should fans take the Bulls by the horns?

Post categories:

Matt Slater | 14:32 UK time, Friday, 13 April 2012

The Bradford Bulls Supporters Trust was set up three years ago by volunteers who shared two beliefs: the success of the Bulls was vital to the well-being of Bradford; and fans could do more to help than just turn up and cheer.

Not blessed with much spare time and confident the club's directors must know what they were doing, the trust decided to focus its attention on the team's talent pipeline. And so BullBuilder was born, a democratic organisation designed to subsidise the club's academy and junior teams.

What the trust was not designed to do, however, was form a board in waiting for that moment when those directors who must know what they are doing announce the club needs £1m by the end of April or else. That moment came late last month when Bulls chairman Peter Hood revealed the gory truth of the club's finances.

Iestyn Harris

In 2004, Iestyn Harris joined Bradford Bulls after a contractual fight with former club Leeds. Photo: Getty

Having just asked the fans to cough up half of that million by 6 April, Hood added: "If we haven't got the cash, we can't stay alive. It's that serious." This warning was repeated by chief executive Ryan Duckett when he said "there might not be a Bulls" if the "Quest for Survival" appeal did not work.

But it did work - just - and the board must now turn pledges into cheques and implement its plan for raising the second £500,000 it says it so desperately needs. That plan is likely to involve more traditional fundraising methods than those of recent weeks. Instead of sponsored car washing, memorabilia auctions and bucket collections, we should expect news of "fresh investment" and perhaps the sale of a player or two.

More of the same then. The same approach that has left one of rugby league's most famous names on the brink of bankruptcy and the same business model that is producing losses throughout the sport.

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting things to turn out differently was Albert Einstein's definition of insanity. Nobody is suggesting the directors of the Bulls, or any other club, are insane, but this crisis should prompt serious analysis of what has gone wrong and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.

The Super League's 1996 launch as a summer competition undoubtedly revitalised the game. Few clubs, in fact, did better than Bradford out of the move to the warmer months and pay television. Having swapped the old name of "Northern" for the sexier "Bulls", they won four of the first 10 Super League titles, claiming two Challenge Cups and three World Club Challenges to boot. But the last of those league triumphs came in 2005.

Subsequent seasons have seen the team that once featured stars like the Paul brothers, Tevita Vaikona, James Lowes, Paul Deacon and Lesley Vainikolo fade badly. They have not made the play-offs since 2008.

This run has unsurprisingly had a negative impact on the finances, but what really did for the Bulls was their most bullish move, the 2004 signing of Iestyn Harris when he returned to league after a stint in union.

Harris might not have set the world alight in the 15-man game but he was a points machine in league. He was also, unfortunately for the Bulls, supposed to give his old club, Leeds Rhinos, first refusal on any 13-man code comeback.

Already handsomely paid, Harris would go on to cost the Bulls considerably more once the Rhinos finished with them in the courts. The settlement has never been made public but a look at the club's accounts reveals "administrative costs" of £1.3m in 2009 and £1.2m in 2010. A final chunk of "appropriate compensation and costs" was due last year.

The knock-on effect of this calamitous transfer coup was that in January the Bulls were forced to sell the lease on their Odsal home to the Rugby Football League, who then rent it back to the club. This deal brought in £1.2m but it hardly touched the sides as £700,000 went back to the RFL to settle a loan and the rest was swallowed by other creditors, the taxman prominent amongst them.

If that was not bad enough, the deal had the unintended consequence of changing the terms of the club's relationship with the Royal Bank of Scotland. The bank denies cutting the Bulls' overdraft but there will be no more credit until "alternative security" is provided.

For most Super League clubs, "alternative security" means finding a sugar daddy who is willing to make good the annual losses that Hood claims average £500,000 a club. This, he says, has risen 10-fold in just six years.

Earlier this month, Hull Kingston Rovers chairman Neil Hudgell described the game as "bankrupt", while St Helens chairman Eamonn McManus said the Super League could not sustain its current 14 teams.

Tweaking the numbers and reallocating TV cash would probably help, for a while, but there might be another solution. Why not build on a fortnight that has seen hard-pressed fans dip into their pockets once more to save a community asset?

Despite misgivings about the board's performance, BullBuilder decided not to add strings to its contribution. But should it be so deferential again?

In a statement published on the trust's website on Wednesday, BullBuilder set the board six challenges, including a demand for full disclosure on what has gone wrong and "some form of representation at the highest level".

There are already three fan-owned clubs further down the pyramid - the Bramley Buffaloes, Hunslet Hawks and Rochdale Hornets - and they operate on the co-operative model proving so successful in football.

There might be an argument that a Super League franchise is simply too big a business for this model, but the annual turnover of the Bulls is comparable to the fan-owned football clubs at Brentford and Exeter City. You could also argue, given the mounting losses, that a current Super League franchise is too big for the local Mr Big.

But there is more to this debate than simply who runs these clubs. What matters is how they are run, who they are run for and what safeguards are in place to make sure they will still be running tomorrow. After all that has happened, could the fans do any worse?


  • Comment number 1.

    Rugby Leagues problem..... few people watch or enjoy it! I know this may upset a few people, but why oh why rugby league and rugby union dont combine into one single division is beyond me.

  • Comment number 2.

    I know the above may upset people, I dont mean for it to be offensive, its just the audience and interest is not their.

    Though what their fans are doing is incredible, surely they would not be in this situation if more fans were in attendance of the game?

    As mentioned above " The same approach that has left one of rugby league's most famous names on the brink of bankruptcy and the same business model that is producing losses throughout the sport."

    I feel the £500k will be a lost cause if a significant donor cant be found to take the club forward into the medium to long term future.

  • Comment number 3.

    I know this comment might upset a few people, but I don't mean it to be offensive but I think North London has too many football clubs. If Tottenham and Arsenal merged this would solve the problem and would be better for all....
    Football is also not exactly immune to money problems (Pompey, Rangers to name a couple!)
    If you're as honest as your username suggests why don't you stick to topics you actually know a little about instead of showing your ignorance of rugby?

    Rugby League gets roughly the same amount of fans as Rugby U for league matches. It is just the international game where Union is a million miles ahead. RL is not as good a product as it should be, mainly due to incompetence at Red Hall. Signing too many average foreigners on big contracts also doesn't help teams.

  • Comment number 4.

    Good blog, answers are needed from Bradford, the Bulls fans have to dig deep and push harder, in the search for truth.

  • Comment number 5.

    Interesting blog, nice to see someone at the BBC dealing with this but as a long-standing Bradford fan I do have to take issue with a few posts.

    I am sure the folk at Bullbuilder are well-intentioned, but to many they are simply stooges of the current BOD, you say Peter Hood came clean about the financial situation but in reality he didn't, he just stated we needed to raise 500k sharpish and another 500k in a few weeks but gave no indication of how and why it had come to this and, now the first 500k has been pledged and called in he has hidden behind "confidential talks" which give little confidence that this money will not just disappear down a black hole. Bullbuilder have issued their statement with questions to be answered, but I doubt there will be any reply to this, though maybe they will get another private audience with the BOD like they had last week and come out of it backing them without making it clear to the mass ranks of the support what plan it is we are supposed to be following.

    I feel you have also fallen into the trap the current regime want people to fall into by blaming the situation on the Iestyn Harris transfer. Undoubtedly this was a financial disaster for Bradford, but I believe the current regime to be using it to hide behind knowing that the actual settlement figures cannot be divulged due to a confidentiality clause in the agreement. Poor off-field leadership in recent times saw us stick with a coach clearly out of his depth and the resulting drop in crowds and income from play-offs has hit hard, and that was something the current board could have rectified sooner. Also just as damaging was the decision to use a multi-million pound settlement from the council in respect of the previous Odsal lease up all in one go, mostly on building hospitality facilities, when it would have been more prudent to finance it with a long term loan when the economic situation all-round was more agreeable. As with the Harris transfer this was done under the previous chairman, though I believe Mr Hood was on the BOD at the time.

    The current chairman has been in charge for six years now and, whatever went on prior to him taking charge, cannot be forgiven for letting us get into the situation we have landed in over these last few weeks. Unfortunately we seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place as it seems our other option is our previous chairman whose dreadful decision making toward the end of his reign sowed the seeds. Supporter ownership would be brave and a welcome development, but it seems neither Peter Hood nor Chris Caisley are willing to let go, when really neither have much going for them to support their chairmanship.

  • Comment number 6.

    A wake up call! Rugby league is a fabulous but sadly minority sport "up north". After money problems a few years ago Leeds has benefitted from good on and off pitch moves but many clubs simply do not get the regular and necessary large crowds they need to survive. Look at Salford- an 11000 seater, half full! Sky TV money is not enough and I doubt whether Union can survive on it either. BUT a merger of codes is never going to happen. Time for a rethink methinks. Way forward? Dont know......

  • Comment number 7.

    Tha reality is that many sports will struggle during a recession and those with a weak business will be found out. Even the strong clubs in football, RL and RU are feeling it but they will ride out the worst of it.
    Bradford Bulls are not unique and won't be the last. Unfortunately many sports are run be administrators who are totally out of touch with reality and they remain inflexible in a fast changing world.
    Eamon McManus has hit the nail on the head when he stated that SL is too big. The same can be said for other leagues in other sports as costs mount for clubs, the need to reduce the cost of travelling and staging games nees to be addressed. Bradford will emerge from this as they have done before but there has to be a change of attitude, not just at the clubs but within the governing bodies. They need to understand the real issues that the average fan faces and they must be open to change and be prepared to take a long hard look at themselves.
    A very good example of not learning from previous mistakes is the format of the 2013 RLWC. It is similar to the loss making 2000 one when games where played all over the country, sometimes in front of a thousand people!! There all many more examples at club and international level.

  • Comment number 8.

    As a Hunslet HAWKS fan upset by the mistake made in this blog it is the HAWKS that are the professional rugby club that are fan owned. The Hunslet Warriors although gat are amateur. We are the eighth in the co-operative championship making us the highest supporter owned rugby league club. There fore it would be appreciated for you to check your names next time before posting!

  • Comment number 9.

    Matt, this is a good article thanks but poor management of a sports club goes way beyond RL. Wasps £8m in debt, Portsmouth £30m in debt (I think these figures are right but happy to be corrected). Glasgow Rangers anyone?

    Until governing bodies get a grip, put some proper rules in place and actually stick their oar in when checking out finances, this will not be the first or last time we see a story like this unfold. Is fan ownership is the way forward? You bet.

    Orko - your post is spot on. The current board must stand down once the future of the club is secured.

    Compared to the state the game was in 20 years ago, I think RL has made some good progress. Not perfect (witness Crusaders debacle, yes 14 teams are too many), but not a total disaster. Attendances are up and player participation is higher than it ever used to be.

    Quick final point. The key advantage Union has to support clubs is a successful revenue stream from internationals so a team like Leicester gets something like £4m from the RFU per annum. High profile internationals = blue chip sponsors for teams and individual players. League was finally getting to grips with this only for the NRL to pull the rug by boycotting their players from participating in 2012 internationals. Thanks guys.

  • Comment number 10.

    Tbh this has been coming for a while. As soon as the 'super league' was formed (under Skys prompting) and formed without the full support of RL's fanbase and clubs, a fall would happen. Yes as usual with Sky, a lot of new 'customers' were attracted by the ritzy new "Sooper league' and the naff new names, but as with football, this new audience is not guaranteed once the money runs out - or when times get hard.

    As football found out in the 1980's the first ans to walk are not the die-hard working class fans but the 'middle class' fans who look after the pennies before they stay loyal to a club. Now many football clubs are seeing that support melt away, in particular as seat prices mean they only have Middle class support.

    Don't believe a word the EPL says, just look at the rows of empty seats at all the 'unfashionable clubs' these days.

    RL is now suffering from the same problem. Unlike RU where the support has always been Middle class (and limited by comparison with RL) they now face a problem football doesn't. RL is a regional (despite the foisting of 'outsiders' on it) minority sport boosted by TV money that is at a crossroads an increasing number of football fans know so well. The fair weather fans are falling away, the clubs have overspent, and Sky are not as keen to sump up the cash as in yeas past.

    Who could have seen it coming eh? ;)

  • Comment number 11.

    Having been an observer on this and other similar occurences throughout high level sport I feel that there comes a time when we have to say enough. This is not being unfair to any particular organisation but we cannot go on bailing out failing enterprises because they should stand, at a level equivalent to their support/business model, or fail if they cannot sustain the required elements of their governing body/financial institutions etc. I feel that this would make those remaining stronger and more likely to plan accordingly to sustain their existence at the required level.

  • Comment number 12.

    The RFL do NOT encourage any Supporter involvement in RL clubs. They have had 'issues' with Supporters Direct - the parent body of Supporters Trusts (I'm not saying I agree with the RFL) - but we, at Wakefield, were given a cold shoulder when the idea of our ST getting involved came about.
    The RFL no longer provide funding to Supporters Direct either - meaning that there is no longer a dedicated member of staff at SD to give advice and support to any potential Trust - a very short-sighted decision IMO.
    The model seemingly preferred by the RFL is the 'rich backer' scenario - which is ultimately a pack of cards waiting to fall down!
    Having said all that - if the supporters of Bradford don't insist on a say in matters there in return for their money, then they are mad.
    Good luck to the club and it's supporters. Not so much to Hood and co!

  • Comment number 13.

    As mentioned by others, Sky doesn't pay much to cover Rugby League, but the BBC deserves some criticism here because they reluctantly show far less. Just a few cup games and none of Super League, preferring instead to promote Rugby Union where there is regular conditioning taking place. The result is to show little regard to Rugby League and all supporters. The coverage they give via 'The Super League Show' is a pitiful and begrudged snippet of what supporters deserve.

    So, to the BBC I say put your (our tax) money where your reporting mouth is and support Rugby League. Your lack of support is obvious and we know the reasons why. Cut those BBC Lottery sized salaries, reduce your staff and stop playing the innocent, because you're not helping anyone other than yourselves and it shows.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.