Saints Q&A - part one: Mark Darbon discusses the big financial battle

In these times of immense financial struggle for so many, Saints remain so glad to have the astute leadership of CEO Mark Darbon to call upon.

Saturday, 31st October 2020, 7:00 am
Mark Darbon

But even for a man of his wisdom, these Covid-affected times are throwing up curveballs that are extremely difficult to contend with.

This week, we caught up with Darbon, who arrived at Saints in 2017, to talk all things Franklin’s Gardens.

And in part one of a series of Q&As with the CEO, we ask him about the financial side of life at Saints, who appear set to continue to play their matches behind closed doors for the foreseeable future.

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Q: How is everything at the Gardens right now?

A: “The players have been back in this week.

“They’ve had a short break but obviously conditions mean they haven’t been able to get away as they would have done in normal circumstances but everyone’s back in and raring to go.

“We’re looking forward to it, albeit clearly we’re operating in a world with lots of Covid-led restrictions in place.”

Q: What has this year been like for you and have you had any time to get away from all of the turbulence?

A: “I actually had last week off and it was sort of the first proper days off in 2020 so it was much-needed, although with a three-year-old and a five-year-old at home it’s never that relaxing. I’ve come back to work for a rest!

“It’s certainly not been the year that any of us were expecting.

“The start of 2020 was fantastic because we were in a good place on the pitch and actually we were having a very strong commercial year.

“We were looking at a year where we were going to exceed our targets.

“We’re in the second or third year of that five-year plan and we were going to end the year comfortably ahead based on where we were.

“We were looking at a lot of exciting new initiatives around the Gardens both from a rugby perspective and a commercial perspective.

“So the start of the year was very positive and then, like everyone, we’ve been hugely disrupted by the pandemic and to be honest, it’s felt like a bit of a firefight since then.

“There are a lot of things we’ve had to do that we weren’t expecting.

“We’ve made some good decisions through the pandemic that have helped us navigate some of the challenges we’ve been facing, but dealing with the level of uncertainty has been the toughest thing.

“The goalposts keep moving for society and it’s that lack of certainty that makes things difficult for us really.”

Q: What happens to the five-year plan? Can you continue to use that because it feels like everything has been set back so much?

A: “It’s a good question and I do think we can still use it.

“What the pandemic has done is given us time to reflect on our overall strategy and approach and we feel pretty good about that.

“We feel like we’re doing the right things and we’re heading in the right direction, on and off the pitch, when you set the past few months aside.

“Clearly we’re going to need to rebase some of that plan.

“We’ve had to use a lot more cash over the past few months that we would have done as our revenue streams have ground to a halt so the plan needs rebasing but the fundamentals of that plan are the right ones and we feel we can rebound on the other side of this.

“The tricky thing is knowing when we’ll be through it and we’ve got to continue to navigate the next few months with real precision so we can come out stronger on the other side.”

Q: How sustainable are things at the club with no supporters coming to matches and is there any optimism that you could get supporters back in the stadium before March?

A: “We don’t have a crystal ball so we’re having to make a number of assumptions around what we think might happen.

“On crowds specifically, we know they are such an important part of what we do.

“Clearly Franklin’s Gardens is a better place when we’ve got our supporters here. The players feel that and we all feel that, day in, day out.

“We’re desperate to get crowds back and our ability to do so and generate revenue related to matchday activities is so crucial to our financial model.

“Getting supporters back here is so important on so many fronts but we don’t know when that’s going to be right now.

“The last concrete message from the government was that it could be as far off as March but at the same time there’s a lot of work that we’re doing and various groups are doing to see if we can bring that date forward.

“We’re hopeful on that front and more broadly we continue to be in a battle because without that matchday income, there’s real pressure on our financial model.

“It’s important to take a step back.

“Even before Covid, Premiership rugby clubs were certainly not businesses that print money. The vast majority of clubs lose money each year and that doesn’t give you the most stable base when you’re hit by a pandemic.

“In relative terms, Saints are in a decent position because we own our fantastic facility here at the Gardens, we’ve got a very large supporter base, we had some cash in the bank before the pandemic - one because our commercial performance had been strong the past couple of years, and two because we’re been very thoughtful about how we use the money from CVC buying a share of our league.

“We come from a relative position of strength with no debt in the business and very supportive shareholders but as soon as you lose your income streams and your cost base is significant - more than a million pounds each month - it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that’s going to create real pressure for you.

“The longer we don’t have access to our revenue streams, the more pressure there is on our financial model and at some point you will run out of cash.

“What we’re doing right now is taking every measure possible to manage our cash so we can prevent the club from going out of business.

“I’m confident we can weather the storm, but make no bones about it, this is absolutely the biggest challenge the club has faced off the pitch in the professional era, if not ever.”

Q: How long can this situation genuinely go on for because one million pounds going out every month and not much coming in does not work? How worrying is this as a league because even if Saints survive, they still need clubs to play against?

A: “Along with all of the other clubs in Premiership Rugby and a load of other sporting organisations, we have been in contact with the government and recently put in a request for some formal support to try to offset the delay to the return of spectators.

“It’s very easy to paint a picture of the impact it’s having on us and the risk it creates for a lot of other clubs.

“If we’re in the middle of next year and we haven’t been able to generate any matchday income, I’m pretty sure not many of the Premiership clubs would be around.

“We’ve got a tightrope we’re walking here and we’re taking the actions locally and at league level to try to protect the clubs and the role they play, but it’s a battle.

“We’re hoping for some support to help us manage things in the short term.”

Q: You’ve come up with a lot of innovative ideas in recent times - a documentary about the club being one. What is the situation with that and do you have any other off-field money-making ideas coming up?

A: “Again, good question. One of the things we’ve tried to do over the past few years is lessen our reliance on just rugby as our income stream.

“We’ve got a brilliant facility here at Franklin’s Gardens and we need to use it more to generate income and to help ensure the club is viable and sustainable.

“It was important before the pandemic and it becomes even more important now because of the challenges we’re facing.

“We’ve done a lot of things we haven’t done before - like concerts, Tough Mudder events, outdoor cinemas - and we’ve got a couple of things coming up like a fireworks display and a drive-in pantomime.

“The team here is fantastic at thinking through new ideas and you’ll have seen some of that come to the fore in recent weeks.

“We remain really open to the idea of a fly-on-the-wall documentary and we’ve been talking to various third parties and external agencies about whether we could get something off the ground there.

“In the spirit of transparency, with everything else going on in recent weeks, it’s been hard to keep those conversations right at the top of the list but it’s something we remain really keen to do.

“It’s clearly a really different environment to have a camera crew following the organisation around given all of the Covid protocols and the testing bubble we’re in.

“It’s also a difficult time for production companies because their resources are stretched in the same way ours are because they are being impacted by the pandemic in the same way as we are.

“We’re not there on the documentary as yet but it’s something we’re keen to do.

“I think you will continue to see a stream of new activities and events coming out of Franklin’s Gardens because the team are motivated by coming up with those ideas because they are really important to us from a commercial perspective.”

Q: Who drives these ideas?

A: “It’s been a genuinely collaborative effort.

“We quite often run brainstorming sessions and you should see some of the things that have been rejected - it would make interesting reading!

“We’ve got an innovative marketing and comms team and we’ve even had people from outside the club write in and ask us if we’ve considered things.

“We’ve also had ideas from our playing group.

“We’ve tried to foster a culture where people can bring those ideas to the table and if we think they can generate a commercial return then we think ‘why not?’.

“There’s a danger you can become quite insular as a club, and our club has been quite insular at times historically, so we’re not afraid of looking at what other organisations are doing and begging, borrowing and stealing them and tailoring them to Frankin’s Gardens and our environment here.

“We try to bring those ideas to the table.”