Chairman, Jon Flatman, discussed the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic with journalist Ross Heppenstall this week while also looking ahead to 2021.
The club would like to give a massive thank you to Ross for both writing this great piece and sharing it on his platforms.
This article was first available on rugbyleaguehub.com’s ‘Long Read’ Patreon site: www.patreon.com/rugbyleaguelongreads
By Ross Heppenstall
There has been plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth in rugby league circles in recent days, but it is not all doom and gloom.
While many clubs within the professional structure of the British game talk of a fight for survival amid the coronavirus pandemic, others are forecasting a more positive outlook.
Take York City Knights.
Upwardly mobile since a consortium led by Jon Flatman took control at the end of 2016, the Knights have been one of British rugby league’s genuine success stories in recent times.
After being promoted from League 1 as champions in 2018, James Ford’s men finished third in the second tier in 2019.
They are due to move into to the newly-built LNER Stadium at the start of next season.
The 2020 campaign in the Championship and League 1 has been wrecked by Covid-19 and crowds may not be allowed into grounds for another six months.
All professional sports clubs are feeling the pinch to some extent and more grim times lie ahead.
But when I ask Flatman about the financial hardship facing his and many other clubs, he is almost beside himself.
The City Knights chairman declares: “We’re really positive for the future at York City Knights and I make no bones about it, we will survive.
“We will certainly look different as a club because we will come back into a new ground for a start.
“We also need to come back with twice as much energy and enthusiasm that we had before Covid-19.
“In no way are we underestimating the seriousness of the situation but we have a duty to ourselves and everybody else to come back in a vibrant manner, in a partnership manner and with integrity.
“And they are the values of the club – integrity, partnerships, vibrancy and competitiveness.
“That’s what we want and that’s what we will stick to, so we’re very positive as a club.
“Yes, everyone up and down the country has had personal, commercial and private Covid issues to deal with.
“But the challenge is how we work through it and how we come out the other side as sustainable organisations.
“When we get the green light to start training and playing games again, we need to make sure we hit the ground running and are in a good a place as possible.”
On May 1, the Rugby Football League secured an Emergency £16million loan from the Government to help clubs through the coronavirus crisis.
Many clubs are thought not to have applied to borrow money from that pot for fear of leaving themselves in greater financial danger further down the line.
Flatman refuses to say whether or not York have utilised the loan, insisting: “That’s a private issue.
“I’m sure you guys can find that out a Freedom of Information request and I raised that with the RFL. But for now, I think it should remain confidential.”
Ralph Rimmer, the RFL’s chief operating officer, earned many plaudits for leading the game through its crisis and securing the emergency funds from Government.
But four months is a long time in rugby league and in recent days, as restrictions come back into force and fans are kept out of stadia, Rimmer has voiced his concerns for the 13-man code.
On Tuesday, he issued a statement saying: “The Secretary of State indicated that the postponement (of socially distanced crowds) may last throughout the Winter.
“The impact on Rugby League and other sports is profound.
“Rugby League has sadly shelved a much anticipated Ashes series this year, and major finals without crowds looks likely.
“The loan facility provided by Government has been welcomed by the sport. It was predicated on an initial 12 week lockdown.
“Additionally every club has taken significant steps to reduce costs, and players and staff have taken pay reductions.
“The sport has reacted quickly and decisively in facing these challenges.
“Yet it remains likely that with losses at up £2m a week across the sport as a whole, and continued uncertainty, there will be job losses across the sport.”
Rimmer’s statement underlined the seriousness of the situation facing many clubs at all levels, yet Flatman remains upbeat.
A positive person by nature, he adds: “Rugby league has come through some severe challenges before.
“The game almost has a character trait which is resilience and long may that continue.
“But we need to ensure, as Championship and League 1 clubs, that when we get the opportunity to play games that we are ready.
“That work is continuous; that we have to ensure that we have pride in our clubs and hope for the future.
“We need to keep those two entities at the forefront of our mind and will continue to communicate with fans, stakeholders, partners and players – everybody.
“We will try and make sure we do our bit to maintain their positivity and their loyalty to the game which supporters and club partners have clearly shown in the last six months.
“We have a duty to come back, not the same but to a different place with a positive mindset.”
There is an energy about the Knights which has transformed them in recent times and has held them in good stead at a time of crisis.
Flatman explains: “We went into the Covid-19 outbreak period with uncertainty around our ground, off the back of a very successful 2019 and the difficult start to 2020.
“Some of that difficult was due to the quality of opponents we faced in Leigh and Toulouse away.
“We were in a good place but we had that uncertainty hanging over us.
“Were we going to have a season as successful as 2019? I don’t know and no-one will ever know.
“We were in a relationship with new kit suppliers and a position with new partners on board who we had a lot of work to do in terms of building a relationship with.
“In terms of where we would then come out of Covid, when do we come out of it?
“But we actually started planning for that from the moment we entered Covid, in terms of what the future looks like.”
Flatman says clubs must adapt to the so-called new normal and be prepared to look very different as a result.
“No club has to come out of the Covid period in exactly the same place as they went into it,” he says.
“And the challenge for everybody is to accept that the mindset is very different.
“Things will be different, but fortunately we were quite lean as an organisation and I think the mindset of everybody was to be quite agile and accept what was going to happen – and to get through it.
“At certain points there were priorities on different things but we were absolutely keen for our players to have the information as I got it.
“Thus I think we have built a stronger bond with our playing group, on and off the field, due to the adversity and the honesty that both sides have demonstrated.
“In terms of the stadium, we have now got the keys and have all the excitement of having a new office, new boardroom, the seats, the grass, and everything that comes with it throughout the complex.
“Compared to pre-Covid, that’s a big positive and that’s exciting.
“You don’t get a ground every 10 years, you might get one every seventy years.
“Very shortly, fans will be able to see it and taste it for themselves because all the talk over many, many years has been delivered.”
York are continuing to sign players in readiness for next season.
Flatman calls it a “very successful recruitment period” and believes areas of the squad which needed strengthening have been suitably reinforced.
“I think we will end up with six or seven new players from last season’s squad,” he says.
“It’s a deeper squad and our youngsters at the bottom end, our seventeen and eighteen year olds, are a year older which bodes well.
“All that’s a positive. The finances of a rugby club are the finances of a rugby club.
“They are in some ways dictated to, but we’ve battled through this period and what should not be forgotten is the huge amount of support we’ve had from the fans.”
Flatman says this backing has come through “financial and social loyalty” by donating season-ticket money back to the club.
He says: “That has gone a considerable way towards making this club stronger going into the 2021 season.
“We, as clubs, need to reflect that loyalty and ensure that it’s never forgotten.
“But what the fans did there was a huge benefit and provided an immeasurable lift to the morale of the people at the club and obviously our finances.
“When under stress and pressure, the relationship with our club partners had stayed extremely strong.
“That’s testament to how both sides delivered those partnerships and again it’s reference to the fact you’re not alone.
“Fans, players, staff and partners are in it with you and York City Council have been absolutely first class, on every level.
“Where sometimes you feel that you’re paddling in your own canoe on occasions, you look up to the sky and pray that the big man above is helping you, you only have to look around now and realise that there are a lot of people who have delivered in their own person and financial manner.”
While York have at times been held up as a blueprint for other lower league clubs with ambition to follow, Flatman plays that suggestion down.
He is also reluctant to talk about whether York might seek to replace Toronto in Super League if the Wolfpack are kicked out of the competition and a mini-licensing system takes place to elevate a Championship side into the top flight.
“I believe we contribute to the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the sport, which is one of our main aims,” he says.
“But my fiducial duty, and my time and effort, is being spent on ensuring that we drive this club forward.
“I’m sure every other club will be doing exactly the same. We are committed to the growth of the game and we are committed to ensuring everybody gets through this.
“But the focus of our energies is quite simply on York City Knights and I am tremendously upbeat for the future of the club and what we can achieve.
“I don’t think I’m a lone voice in that. If I am, then so be it.”
All rugby league clubs have taken advantage of the Government’s furlough scheme during the past six months.
It was announced this week that the government and firms will continue to top up wages of workers who have not been able to return to the workplace full time due to the coronavirus.
The Job Support Scheme, which will replace the furlough scheme, will see workers get three quarters of their normal salaries for six months.
Flatman says: “We rolled out cashflow as best we could for a 20-month period from March/April 2020… and I think we are on version 23 of that now!
“It has been amended many times, and with good reason, and we’ve got a tremendous set of accountants working with us who provide due diligence on our propositions and proposals.
“We’ve got a great in-house finance person who keeps everybody in check.
“We have constantly been amending that cashflow and from the date the furlough was announced, the scheme was always due to end in October.
“The cashflow always had to have that end in October, so in that way it hasn’t changed.
“Rishi Sunak’s announcement on Thursday has actually given more optimism than there was on Monday, following the news about crowds not being allowed back into grounds.
“So we did a cashflow post-Boris (Johnson) on Monday and then we’ve amended it again after Sunak’s announcement.
“It’s constantly moving for us and we’re trying to be as agile as we can.
“Ultimately it was very clear that James Ford was very keen to get our players back in on November 1 for pre-season training.
“Therefore, even if there had been an extension of furlough, it wouldn’t have made a dramatic difference to us because the boys would be back at work.
“We’re on a journey and we haven’t stopped. We will have some ups and downs and some difficult periods along the way.
“We won’t always be a success story. Yes, we’re absolutely a success story and we’re all aware of that.
“But what we’ll do is keep doing what we think is the right way and we’ll live or die by that.”
Flatman is keen to stress that he is not blowing his or York’s trumpet; far from it.
“Every owner runs their clubs the best way possible for them,” he says.
“There are all different circumstances and all different backgrounds.
“No-one runs a club, in my opinion, better than anyone else because until you have walked a day in their shoes you don’t know what issues you’ve got to face.
“You truly, truly don’t. We have, in essence, been gifted a stadium and I’m sure there are others.
“That’s not just down to the work that we do. It’s down to a whole host of social and economic factors.
“As a club we don’t do things massively different to other clubs. We maybe just do it a bit more intensely and I am bordering on obsessive. Maybe that’s the difference.
“The Championship will be great next year, I really believe that, with some good teams and great players on show.”