Wednesday, 17 December 2008


For the third time in a decade, Bristol Rugby Club's future is uncertain. Many long term Bris fans are greeting this with weary resignation rather than indignant outrage. It's not that our affection for this fantastic old club is any less, but twice now we've seen this to and fro of rumour and denial and it's depressingly familiar.
Depressing, because we know that with our rugby heritage and the massive rugby community that is the greater Bristol area this club could and should be one of the most successful in the country.
It's almost impossible to pick out fact from fiction at present. Certainly, Bristol did not help themselves with their appeal for investment. So far none has appeared, and it seems to have done no more than power the rumour mill.
The club admit that they are suffering in the current economic climate, but that they are not in immediate danger. This is not the spin that the media are choosing to put on it.
It's easy to dismiss rumours as rumours, but the last time Bristol were in trouble, five years ago, rumours about the club being potentially moved to Oxford or merged with Bath were initially laughed off. Both turned out to be to be true.
I suspect Bristol's position is worse than they are letting on. The recession will hit them harder than many clubs because of the simple fact that your average Bristol fan has less disposable income than his or her equivalent at Harlequins or Wasps. On top of the fall out from the Memorial Ground debacle of the summer, income for this year will have dropped considerably.
But are they about to go to the wall? I just don't know. What can be said for certain, though is that action needs to be taken now for Bristol to get through this period.
Firstly, professional rugby as a whole needs to make sure it is sustainable. It is easy to write Bristol off as a basket case, holding the others back, but that view is naive. Earlier this week it seemed like the rest of the Premiership clubs were looking to ditch Newcastle and Bristol for a ten team premiership. Happily, that view has not prevailed, and Premier Rugby are looking at measures to help the poorer clubs, starting with a reduction in the salary cap. This is sensible. Professional sport is not immune from recession.
Secondly, Bristol need to exploit the strongest resource that they have. The rugby community and people of the Bristol area. This has always been the strength of the club, and the reason why it prospered for so long. The club should not cease the search for further corporate and private investment, but now it needs to bring in the local community in a wholehearted and long term way. Happily, moves seem to be afoot in just this direction.
The state of the economy poses a major challenge to the future of Bristol Rugby Club, certainly in terms of whether it can continue as part of the elite, and possibly to its very existence.
As Bristol supporters, we would appear to have two choices. The first is to roll our eyes and await what would become the inevitable. The second is to remember what a wonderful club Bristol is, and take advantage of adversity to build an ownership and investment structure that finally bridges the tension between the community rugby club of our memory and our aspiration, and the realities of professional sport.
Other challenges remain. The ground situation needs to be resolved, and everyone associated with the club needs to pull together for the rest of the season to keep us in the Premiership, but we can build a club worthy of our history and our potential. Times might well be tough now, but this could we the opportunity for us all -club, supporters and city - to put Bristol on the sure footing it deserves.

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