Bishop Fleming Chair, Ian Smith caught up with Jason Whittingham Co-owner of Worcester Warriors to see how life at Sixways has changed since his arrival in 2018 and specifically during Lockdown.
For those who may not be aware, who are Worcester Warriors?
First and foremost, we are a 150-year-old rugby club and a great sporting asset in the City of Worcester, but we are so much more than that. Everything we do has the community and bringing the best out of Worcester in mind.
Yourself and Colin Goldring (owners of Worcester Warriors) have been involved in the club now for around 2 years. What has been your main role since taking over?
When Colin and I took over Warriors in September 2018, we found a dysfunctional business with missing connections between the rugby and non-rugby elements.
We quickly identified the need to reshape the systems and controls throughout the club, bringing everyone together to work as one team.
We set a strong and clear vision of where we wanted the club to be - not just in 2 years, or 5 years, but 20 years and beyond. The key is to make this fantastic club sustainable for generations to come.
What was the key to implementing this vision?
We recognise the main asset of this business is people. Allowing our people the freedom to be creative and autonomous will yield results. We entrust people and support forward thinking ideas to help the club move in the right direction.
Naturally within this we include the playing staff, as ultimately the key to success is dependent on how we perform on the field.
Traditionally, Warriors is a club renowned for losing their brightest talents to Premiership rivals, but we wanted to put an end to that – and never has that been more important. The talent pool of the most recent academy graduates is unrivalled.
The likes of Ted Hill, Ollie Lawrence, Will Butler and Andrew Kitchener – to name just a few – coming into the first team set-up are having a tremendous impact.
We were determined to ensure that the frustrating inability to maintain talent was not a recurring theme for this club going forward. Huge credit must go to Alan Solomons (Worcester Warriors Director of Rugby) for bringing in the stability the club has needed for so long.
As well as youth players committing their futures to the club, key players – like Sam Lewis and Nick Schonert – are excited to continue to playing careers at Warriors, having recently committed to a long-term future at Sixways.
As a long-time season ticket holder myself, there has been some clear renovation around the ground since your arrival. Talk me through what improvements you have made to the facilities during your time at the club?
It was key we showed our fans, community, and sponsors that we are doing what is best for the club, and that involves reinvesting into the business.
We highlighted the need to improve the lighting and screens around the ground to generate an improved atmosphere. Significant funds were spent on these projects, as well as implementing a new PA system and upgrading all the boxes throughout the stadium, to enhance the customer experience within the ground.
As well as the stadium improvements, there has been increased funds allocated to the Warrior Women’s team. We acknowledged this has not been given the amount of focus it deserves and we realised this needed to change.
At Worcester we are fully inclusive. One sport, one team, one family.
Rewind back to early March. You’ve spent the best part of 2 years implementing your vision and then suddenly we’re faced with this never-before-seen global pandemic gathering pace and impacting worldwide sport. Talk to me about those days leading up to the UK lockdown and the sharp termination to sport as we all know and love.
It really was an unreal situation and actually took me days to fully digest what was actually happening.
There was a growing concern in mid-March that a transition to working from home was likely. With 180 full time employees based at Sixways, as well as further hospitality and events staff in and around the ground at any one stage, this presented a significant risk to the business.
Along with the MD – Peter Kelly – we needed to devise a plan of a rotational cycle of working from home which would be implemented immediately.
On the playing side, I recall a government announcement on 18th Match confirming the removal of emergency services from sporting grounds with immediate effect.
Five days before a sell-out crowd were expected at Sixways to see Warriors take on local rivals Gloucester, the momentum building was totally derailed, and the season suspended. This was the ultimate swing of emotions.
As well as no rugby, there was no hospitality or events leading to Sixways being somewhat of a ghost town. The decision was made to shut the stadium and suddenly the business generated no income.
Without this regular income, this must have put real strain on the finances. Talk me through your early response to the situation.
The key thought for us was to ensure we looked after our staff. It was our job to make sure all our people felt safe and secure. We wanted to maintain their livelihoods and, as such, we pledged to maintain all staff with no redundancies.
But this comes at a cost. We were faced with a situation where we took our cash flow projections, put a line through the entire income line, but maintained all expenditure.
Did you utilise government support schemes?
CIBLS and business bounce bank loans were explored but quickly knocked back by the bankers, given our recent financial performance.
Like other businesses, we were given payment holidays on PAYE and VAT, but this relief is just kicking debt down the road to deal with later.
The Furlough scheme – however – was used and we are grateful for it. This allowed us to maintain all staff and came as a welcomed boost for our cash flow.
And away from government support, what has the response from supporters, customers and suppliers been like?
There is no secret that the sport of rugby union loses money, and Warriors are not alone in being financially troubled in recent times.
The club remains heavily reliant on the funding from Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL); however, days before the March funds were due to be received into the Warriors bank, all clubs were informed the funding was being paused due to concerns over central sponsorship clawback.
But it is not all negative news. We were overwhelmed by the support shown by our fantastic season ticket holders.
With uncertainty as to whether rugby would be played at the ground for the remainder of the 2019/20 season, we offered refunds to our fans. Only 30 season ticket holders opted to cancel their direct debit payments, showing tremendous support for the club from fans.
Sponsors continuing to meet their monthly invoices without any requests for refunds was also a truly humbling experience, and we are so grateful to our incredible fans and community.
We have read a lot in the news about player salary cuts throughout Premiership rugby. How was this handled?
Around 75% of the costs of the club are player wages so clearly something had to give.
Negotiations are being made with players and new terms are still being discussed, which will help the club, through this period, and grow into a much more viable and sustainable business.
I cannot praise the players enough for their attitude throughout a challenging and uncomfortable process and it just goes to show what a great bunch of boys we have.
Whilst they were off, and as sport returns, the players maintaining fitness was obviously key. I think you had some clarification on exactly what players could do under the furlough scheme?
That’s right. The furlough scheme clearly stated that employees could not work during a furlough period.
We spoke to HMRC and the PRL regarding player training. It was confirmed the players could return to training, whilst remaining on furlough, as this was not generating any income for the business.
Initially, the majority of training was undertaken at players’ homes, with them showing great levels of self-motivation to keep in shape for such a long period. We then slowly started to introduce more group work. Following government guidelines, we set up pods which allowed us to step up the training programmes.
Will the return to training have any impact on the previously agreed furlough arrangements?
This remains to be seen. The players are still generating no income for the club, but as we gear up for a return to action, we wait to see exactly when or how the scheme will change.
For us, the key is the safety of the players. We have regular consultations with players to check in and see how they are feeling.
Along with the other Premiership clubs, we have all players and coaching staff tested for COVID-19 on a regular basis. On the first round of testing, we had 2 positive results from 64. The pod working arrangement allowed us to isolate these groups to ensure there was no spreading. A period of self-isolation followed as per the government guidance.
You mention about the return to action. It has recently been announced that rugby will resume in August in empty grounds. Talk to me about this.
Yes, we will be back in action at Sixways for the rescheduled local derby with Gloucester on 15th August.
At a minimum we are hoping to be able to live stream all games so our fans can at least enjoy some rugby once again.
I am still hopeful that further down the line we will be able to welcome fans back to the stadium in a socially-distanced way. I suppose it’s: “watch this space…”.
Looking ahead, are you able to stay positive and look for opportunities in and around the club?
Absolutely. Despite the last few months being hectic, we have taken the time to finalise exciting plans on some blue-sky thinking to make the business bigger, better and stronger.
We have engaged with local architects, the City and local Councils to devise plans to revamp the whole Sixways site.
We want a good news story for Worcester, and we want to bring Cecil Duckworth’s (long-time Executive Chairman of Worcester Warriors) long-term dreams to life.
We have the ambition to be a regular top-6 side, and we know that means we need bigger and better facilities. We are hoping we can share the exciting news with our fans very soon.
Check out our Business after COVID-19: Transition Knowledge Hub for more guidance and advice on managing the pandemic.