HENLEY Rugby Club is losing up to £30,000 a year and could be forced to quit National League 1 if it does not improve its finances.
It has asked for help from Henley Town Council after chairman Mike Trethewey admitted it is in a “serious financial situation” and struggling to break even.
The club’s requests include:
* To waive the next two annual £4,000 rent payments for Dry Leas.
* A rent freeze until 2018.
* A 10-year extension on the deadine for a £30,000 loan, which is due to be repaid in 2016.
* A £2,000 grant to fund a compulsory 10-year technical inspection of its all-weather pitch.
Councillors have agreed to discuss their options in detail if they can see the club’s audited accounts and suggested setting up a “sports bank” to provide funding to clubs.
Mr Trethewey, who took over as chairman six months ago, told a meeting of the council’s recreation and amenities committee on Tuesday that he was the first person to work in the role full-time and with a commercial background.
He said the club is a centre of rugby that puts out many teams in the men’s, women’s and junior sections each week so needs good facilities.
“It takes a significant amount of money to sustain all those facilities so we carry out commercial activities, mainly around advertising and sponsorship,” he said.
Mr Trethewey said the club has links to the community in “absolutely everything we do”. More than 370 children play on Sundays and the facilities are used by the wider community.
He said: “We’ve done significant charity work and supported a number of organisations but in that idyllic world what’s not quite right? There’s one thing - financially, we’re not self-sufficient.
“We’ve lost money for the last three years and unfortunately in spite of our efforts the budget for this current year indicates we will also lose money this year.”
Mr Trethewey said previous chairmen had tried to solve financial issues in the short-term by asking members for donations.
He added: “That’s not a sustainable way for Henley Rugby Club to continue.”
In his first six months, Mr Trethewey, who has experience as managing director of companies such as Dunlop Slazenger European Golf and marketing roles with various other brands, has increased membership and sponsorship money.
He said the club had made “big efforts” to improve revenue from spectators and the car park and has carefully managed costs.
It has secured eight more major sponsors, with some signing three-year contracts for the first time, and spectator revenue is four times higher than last season.
Car park revenue is also 30 per cent higher and the club is leasing out nine parking spaces to a car wash business.
Mr Trethewey said: “We have to get to break even and I am so confident we can,” he said. “There’s nothing inherently wrong within the business.
“The only thing is you don’t get to break even, having made losses, in the flick of a switch. We need time to do that and we need help.”
The council reviews rent charges every seven years and the next one is due in 2015. Mr Trethewey asked if it could be delayed until 2018.
He said the club was making losses of between £20,000 and £30,000 each year. The turnover for the current financial year, which runs from June to May, is estimated to be £650,000 with losses of £29,000.
Mr Trethewey explained that the short-term financial help would provide leeway while the long-term solutions graduall begin to pay dividends.
He said the club wanted to improve the interior of the clubhouse but long-term plans included building a new one and moving the first team changing rooms alongside it. He claimed a South Oxfordshire District Council planning officer has supported the plans in principle.
With the Rugby World Cup being held in England in 2015, the club also wants to benefit from the event and has applied for £10,000 “legacy funding”, which must be match-funded, from the Rugby Football Union to improve facilities.
When asked if players’ wages could be cut, Mr Trethewey said this could be costly to the club’s position in National League 1.
“There’s a direct correlation between what we pay the players and how successful we are and the sponsorship money we receive,” he said.
Mr Trethewey said the club attracts relatively large crowds because it is currently one of the top 40 rugby clubs in the country.
He added: “We may come to the conclusion that financially we can’t survive in National League 1 so cut all the players’ wages and go into another division.
“I could solve some things by going against the ethos of what we do but I’ve so far backed away from that because it’s not something we want to do, particularly in the junior section. I want to keep the community ethos.”
Councillor Jeni Wood, who chairs the committee, said she was “horrified” with the state of the club’s finances.
Mr Trethewey said: “It’s been allowed to get so bad because previous incumbents went to the membership and persuaded them to give some money.
“They are now thinking ‘I don’t want to give you that. Every time you come to me you keep asking me to chip in and I don’t want to keep giving you money’.”
Councillor Dieter Hinke, who is also chairman of AFC Henley, said if the rugby club received money then other sports clubs would want similar treatment.
He said: “We have 300 children playing at AFC Henley and we get all our income in June and July through subscriptions and then we have to eat them out throughout the year.
“Providing sports for Henley, we’re all in the same boat and we should be treated the same if help is available.
“My concern as a councillor is that there are many sports clubs in Henley clearly facing similar situations of funding shortfalls for many reasons. Maintenance has to be deferred because they can’t afford it.
“If something of this amount is made known in Henley then this council will find that many sports clubs come to us with similar stories.”
Cllr Hinke said it was time for the council to develop a scheme to help sports clubs and suggested offering low interest loans to sports clubs that can be repaid over five years.
Councillor Sam Evans, a member of the club, said Mr Trethewey’s changes were already making a difference.
This includes better gate control to prevent spectators from watching the game for free and selling programmes rather than giving them away for free with tickets.
There are 162 new members and Cllr Evans said, while they used to be given a basic welcome pack, they are now invited to lunches to meet other members and valued more.
“After just six months we’re getting results,” he said. “The key message is we’re giving a whole load to the party and we’re just asking for some things to help.”
Councillor Ian Reissmann said the rugby club is one of the “shining stars” in Henley and it was important the council recognised its importance to the town.
He said the council had supported sports clubs in the past, such as helping Henley Cricket Club to buy the Brakspear Ground,
Cllr Reissmann, who chairs the finance strategy and management committee, told Mr Trethewey: “There’s no reason we can’t also issue grants. There’s a number of organisations that might also come along, although I don’t see that as a reason for not helping you out.
“You are a very worthy organisation and you are a group that we should be talking to, not just because you are a tenant but because you are an asset to the community.
“One of the concerns I have is in one or two years’ time what are we going to do? We would like to address the basic problem of how to make ends meet.”
The council has previously discussed setting up a “sports bank” to provide loans to clubs, which would be similar to its current grants budget for charities and organisations, and Cllr Reissmann suggested revisiting the idea.
He said: “It would have a strategic aim of investing in the long-term leisure activities in Henley. There are several ways that we could do that.
“We have nearly £5 million in the bank and a large amount of money that we could invest. Looking to do it again might well be something that would benefit the town.”
The committee agreed to hold an informal meeting with the club to discuss how best to solve the issues.