Rising costs but sinking sponsors have Abu Dhabi Harlequins chairman Andy Cole fearing the club might be forced to stop travelling to games or even pull out of the cross-border West Asia Premiership in the near future.
Cole is also hugely concerned that the end of a lucrative three-year partnership with Etihad Airways could jeopardise the hosting of the club’s renowned Abu Dhabi Harlequins Junior Rugby Tournament next season.
The UAE’s leading club swept all before them on the field last season, capturing all five trophies on offer – including the triple crown of West Asia Premiership, UAE Premiership and Dubai Sevens.
But off the field, they are not in such rude health. Quins have lost Dh500,000 in sponsorship deals since the end of the 2016/17 campaign.
HSBC, who for years jointly sponsored their mini and youth tournament, the premier event of its kind in the Middle East, pulled the plug a year ago, while ties with Etihad have now also been severed.
“At the moment there’s a real fear we might not be able to host the tournament next season,” said Cole of a tournament that attracted 251 teams from 17 clubs around the Gulf earlier this year when it was hosted at Quins’ Zayed Sports City base.
“It won’t be Etihad anymore, just the junior tournament. My concern is if we don’t get a sponsor for that we might have to not hold it, which would be a real shame.
“That tournament is in the region of Dh150,000 to host. Last year we lost HSBC, we still had Etihad, so we lost 50 per cent of the sponsorship. We still went ahead.”
Quins spent a gargantuan Dh773,000 total on pitch hire at ZSC last season – nearly double the cost from the 2015/16 campaign – although fees are not charged for the youth tournament.
Cole added: “Zayed Sports City pitches are free for that event. If we get a medium sized sponsor and the pitches we can still probably hold it. The cost for us is we have to pay for the cleaners, security guards, ambulances, ice and water. It’s still quite a lot of money for a two-day event.
“Thankfully we had Etihad for three years. But they are now looking out for longer term contracts and despite having a good relationship with us they have to look at the contracts where they’re contractually tied in.
“It’s disappointing as you can see sponsorship going into certain one-off events that is double what we get for the year. I guess rugby is a sport not at the top of the list for these companies.”
Cole says the club has enough in reserve to survive next season, with membership fees rising by 20 per cent, but he knows the club cannot continue to do that.
“We’re fortunate in that we have a reserve to see us through situations like that,” he said. “Because the player base is quite large we don’t need too much to cover outgoings. We’re very fortunate.
“We can’t keep increasing fees by 20 per cent year on year though. We’ll just start losing numbers. And if we lose numbers it becomes 30 or 40 per cent. At some point it’s not going to be sustainable.”
Following the end of the Etihad deal, Quins are likely to start the 2017/18 season in September without a title sponsor on their playing jerseys, because kit manufacturers require three months to meet the club’s incredible demand for 1,000 playing shirts for players from the senior men’s side all the way down to grass roots level.
“At the moment we don’t have any irons in the fire,” he added. “(Today) is our deadline for kit to be printed and I’ve only got one medium-sized sponsor.
“We have small sponsors, for the sleeves, but no main brand on the front. Because we order so many – we’re looking at 1,000 vests, 1,000 playing tops, 1,000 training tops, then shorts and socks – they need eight-12 weeks.
“That’s for all players from senior all the way down.”
Cole admits Quins are not alone and are in fact in a lot better position than other clubs. And although there remains three months to go until the season starts and a year before things get drastic, he foresees dark clouds on the horizon if the financial struggle continues.
“I guess we would have to consider any away games or West Asia games involving travel. Pulling out of the competition or not playing away games,” he warned.
“That’s probably worst case scenario. We’ve been asked by the UAE Rugby Federation to have medics travel to away games as well as all home games, and also to video all home matches.
“But that’s an additional cost and we’re hoping we can do that on a barter agreement. We’re working on that right now but it could be an issue.
“It’s very difficult. It’s always been more difficult in Abu Dhabi but with the current climate it’s bad for everyone.
“Dubai is probably a bit more commercially minded but all clubs are finding it tough. It’s not limited to Abu Dhabi. We probably got hit a lot harder but all the clubs are struggling.
“A few clubs didn’t travel at the end of last season because they wanted to save money on travel costs for a game that is meaningless. Of course that’s not fair on the team they’re travelling to as they miss out on gate receipts, bar takings and so on. It’s not good.
“Doha are not in the competition next season. And while on the positive side that means costs will go down, it means the standard drops slightly.”
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