the start of the 2020-2021 season shaken by the coronavirus epidemic

Players from Stade Français during physical tests on June 11, 2020, in Paris.

The end had been abrupt. The start promises to be chaotic. The French rugby championship, the Top 14, was interrupted overnight, in mid-March, due to the coronavirus epidemic. Its resumption is scheduled for Friday, September 4. But, already, this agenda is shaken.

One of the two opening matches scheduled for that day, the French Stadium against Bordeaux-Bègles, will not take place. It was postponed at the request of the Parisian team, which had highlighted the state of health of a number of its players, infected with Covid-19 and which they did not wish to line up on the field in to the extent that some would still suffer from “Lung damage caused by the virus”.

The French stadium is “Unable to align (…) the required number of frontline players” acted, Tuesday 1er September, the National Rugby League (LNR), responding positively to the postponement request. According to the regulations, at least six front row players must be registered on the 23 of the scoresheet.

Several friendlies canceled

“It’s a perfectly reasonable decision”, reacted Thomas Lombard, the general manager of the French stadium. However, the authority clarified that the disciplinary and rules committee was seized “In order to determine the responsibility of Stade Français in this situation under its management of the off-season”. The Parisian workforce has indeed had to face twenty cases, since the beginning of August, at the end of a preparation course in Nice, raising the question of compliance with safety rules.

The French Stadium is far from being the only club in the turmoil: cases of Covid-19 contamination have also been detected at the Toulouse Stadium, in Grenoble, Agen, Bordeaux-Bègles, or even in Lyon. This situation has led to the cancellation of no less than seven friendly preparatory matches for the resumption of the championship.

It is therefore not said that the situation which prevails for the Stade français – Bordeaux-Bègles match will not recur for other matches in the coming weeks, complicating an already complicated schedule.

“The recovery is vital for the survival of professional rugby”, Paul Goze, president of the LNR

The LNR has anticipated it: it has noted the possibility of postponing matches if at least three cases are detected in a team. But, to avoid getting there, limit contagion and ensure the organization of matches, it has also implemented a draconian protocol: strict instructions for players in their personal lives, mandatory tests three days before the matches.

The speech of French rugby remains positive. Out of the question to stop everything, on the contrary: “Rugby must resume its place in the sporting landscape, it is necessary that it resume”, advance Thomas Lombard despite the difficulties facing his club. This recovery is “Vital for the survival of professional rugby, supported, Monday, August 31, the president of the LNR, Paul Goze. Our clubs are in peril. “

Even if the Top 14 matches were all to be played without a hitch in the weeks to come, French rugby indeed faces a critical question: will it be able to avoid virtual bankruptcy due to a public presence which promises to be very limited, at least for some time to come?

A sport dependent on match day revenue

On August 26, the Prime Minister, Jean Castex, announced that the sports venues will not be able to accommodate more than 5,000 people – players, staff and spectators included – until October 31 and that the prefects will no longer be able to grant an exemption to this. threshold in the departments classified in the red zone because of their health situation. “If the gauge is maintained for another month and a half more, it is almost the death of the clubs”, warns Thomas Lombard.

Unlike football, rugby depends above all on match day revenue: ticketing, catering and sponsorship represent on average 65% of a club’s revenue. The share of television rights is a minority: ” around 10 % “, specifies Mohed Altrad, president of Montpellier Hérault Rugby (MHR). Overall, the clubs share “90 million euros in TV rights per year, against 1.2 billion euros in football”, explains Christophe Lepetit, economist at the Center for Sports Law and Economics, in Limoges.

For this economic model, “Closer to live entertainment than to sport”, estimates Emmanuel Eschalier, general manager of the LNR, the tonnage of 5,000 people is a blow. “Usually, the real economy of rugby is a strength, because the clubs can control it, but this unprecedented situation weakens them. The outlook for 2020-2021 is bleak and they risk experiencing great difficulties ”, predicts Christophe Lepetit.

With the maintenance of a gauge of 5,000 spectators, some sponsors could be inclined to reduce or even stop their commitments given the reduced exposure. Especially since some of these sponsors are themselves financially affected in their main activity because of the economic crisis caused by the epidemic.

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Request for specific aid

At the Toulouse Stadium for example, where 300 companies are partners of the club, among which a large part lives from aeronautics, a sector weakened by the health crisis, “The future is uncertain”, concedes the president, Didier Lacroix. In the past two months, the club have reportedly lost € 3m, not to mention “Indirect losses such as the number of subscribers which will surely be reduced and the partners who, in the long run, will retract”, specifies the leader.

Since confinement, clubs have tightened their belts: lower salaries (which is the first source of expenditure since the teams are made up of about fifty players), increasing appeal to external companies, reduction in the price of subscriptions. But, despite everything, in September and October, the overall losses for all clubs will reach around 35 million euros, specifies Emmanuel Eschalier.

This is why French rugby, while committing to respect health measures, demands more “Flexibility” to the government and that the reception of the public is proportional to the capacity of the stadium. It also calls for economic support measures: “An extension of exemptions from employer charges and that our sponsors have the status of patrons, as in culture, in order to exempt them from charges and convince them to continue supporting us”, details Didier Lacroix.

A delegation composed of leaders of Top 14 clubs and leaders of the NRL was to meet, Tuesday 1er September, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff in order to request specific aid from the public authorities. “It is not out of gaiety of heart that we ask to be under a state drip, it is a question of survival”, advance Didier Lacroix.

“Matignon knows our agenda, the Prime Minister’s office is aware of the urgency of the situation vis-à-vis the clubs’ cash flow, declared to Sud-Ouest Bernard Pontneau the president of the Section Paloise, at the end of this meeting. There is a real desire to help live shows, of which sport is a part. There were no promises, either on one side or the other. We worked on several tracks. It is still a little early to discuss them ”.

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