Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Throwing good money after bad

Oh, Bradford.

Let me make one thing clear - I have no axe to grind against Bradford Bulls. They're a fine club and it's generally a fine place to visit (i.e. when the Odsal microclimate behaves itself). But oh what a mess.

How they ended up in this situation is one for the forensic accountants. What happens next is of greater interest.

Licensing and salary capping were both introduced with the spiel that they would offer stability and protect clubs from financially inviable short-termism - chasing the dream in order to stop up in the top division with inevitable consequences when the bills had to be paid. One of the key tenets of the salary cap was that the amount to be spent on wages was either £1.7m pa or 50% of turnover, whichever was the lower. The 50% rule was quietly - very quietly - dropped a couple of years ago. It's quite a tricky rule to police, especially with the change to a 'live' system after a series of breaches that were punished only the season after - or later - the offence took place and was therefore deemed to be unfair to clubs that played by the rules. It's not a huge leap to suggest that that change in rules could well be a factor in Bradford's current plight. The RFL would do well to study the effects of their rule change, take a step back and see whether there's anything they could have done to prevent this or whether they've been duped.

The Bradford board are currently on a fund-raising drive, the idea that 10,000 season ticket holders contribute £100. The theory is that they were beneficiaries of cheap ticket deals and coughing up another hundred quid still makes the season ticket a competitive deal and that simple maths means that would raise the £1m they apparently require to make all their problems disappear. That's fine in theory, but there are a couple of things I'd want raising before coughing up.

Odsal was sold to the RFL earlier in the year. This was reported at the time as helping to secure the ground as a result of predatory approachers by dastardly developers. Today, it transpires that the RFL were owed monies by Bradford and the sale of the ground covered that. What happened to create that debt? Is it a structural thing that a one-off deal like that cleared for good or is it a case of ongoing losses and mounting debts that this only wiped out temporarily?

Similar questions need raising over this appeal for funds from the board. What reason could they possibly give that any money coming in from people who bought tickets in good faith not that long ago isn't going to disappear down a black hole? What assurances can be given that Peter Hood's claims that raising a million quid will see this problem off for good are actually true?

Fundamentally, why would you hand money over without any assurances? What strikes me as a better idea is to raise the money, but hold it in an Independent Supporters Trust and inject the money into the club that way with fan representation on the board to allow the people who are coughing up these funds some level of oversight into how it's being spent. A cynic might say that the board's claims that they need half a million in little over a week is designed to ensure that this scenario doesn't happen simply on grounds of lack of time.

Fan ownership is tough, but it can be done. Chesterfield and Exeter City football clubs are good examples, as are AFC Wimbledon, FC United of Manchester and Chester FC. There is no reason why it can't work in rugby league. It doesn't strike me as a good idea to hand money to a guy promising to rebuild your house when he's the one that tore it down in the first place. If the Bradford support can organise quickly and go down the IST route, then at least they can hold the prospective house rebuilder to account.

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