Monday Interview: Mark Dodson, SRU

WITH its financial house falling into order, the governing body for rugby in Scotland is now gearing up to enter what chief executive Mark Dodson describes as nothing less than a global “arms race”.

Mark Dodson, chief executive of the SRU, says there is an arms race with bigger rugby countries. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Mark Dodson, chief executive of the SRU, says there is an arms race with bigger rugby countries. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

In most cases, Scotland’s rivals are either larger, have more entrenched programmes, or boast bigger budgets – or all of the above. But with the country’s first major professional title championship in hand and the World Cup close on the horizon, the head of the SRU believes momentum is building.

“Our guys now know what it is like to win, and that is crucial,” says Dodson, whose national side will be stacked with players from the Pro12 champion Glasgow Warriors.

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“And the vast majority of them have won something in Scotland, which is key. They know that we can win in Scotland.”

Since joining from Guardian Media Group in September 2011, Dodson has managed to pay down about £2.5 million of the SRU’s debts, which averaged their lowest in a decade at £10.2m during the financial year to March 2014.

He also initiated a programme to “detoxify” the organisation, which developed fractious relationships with many of its clubs and players through years of vicious cost-cutting. While giving his predecessors credit for making hard choices, Dodson also believes his charm offensive has gone a long way towards convincing stakeholders that the SRU is operating in the best interests of the game.

“The previous chief executive and his team saved Scottish Rugby,” he says. “The costs were out of control and the debts were rising, and they did a great job of stabilising that.

“But all of the focus was on cost control. You can only control costs up to a certain point, and then you have got to start growing revenues.”

That he has done as well. Income of £35m in 2010/11 grew to a record £43.7m in 2013/14, with a long-overdue return to the black in the form of a £900,000 surplus. Results for the latest financial year – which has been adjusted to end in May 2015 in conjunction with the playing season – are described as “very strong”.

Record numbers of spectators are passing through the turnstiles for international, professional and club matches, but the biggest fillip without a doubt was last year’s £20m four-year deal with BT for the naming rights of Murrayfield, the epicentre of Scottish rugby. That was followed up this past spring by another landmark agreement in which BT paid a reported £3.6m in a three-year shirt sponsorship agreement.

BT’s money has led to the establishment of a £1.6m Club Sustainability Fund, as well as the launch of four rugby academies to feed the pipeline of new talent. Dodson says this will finally allow the SRU to “transform” the game in Scotland, but with other countries well ahead on that front, the question is whether this cash injection will be enough to deliver.

“I think it is, but I put a health warning on that every time I say it because we are in an arms race with much bigger countries around the world,” says Dodson, noting that nations such as England, Ireland and Wales have been running academies since the onset of the professional game.

“We are playing catch-up. We have got to get this right because everybody else has been at it for much longer.”

While many things are progressing as Dodson would hope, his tenure at the helm of the SRU has not all been plain sailing.

Uniquely, the SRU not only governs the game in Scotland, but also owns the country’s two professional teams, the Warriors and Edinburgh Rugby. Dodson came under scrutiny earlier this year following the resignation of Edinburgh managing director David Davies, who was appointed by Dodson but became the focus of a players’ revolt after sacking long-serving team manager Lynsey Dingwall.

For his part, Dodson chalks the affair up to the conflicting interests which the SRU must serve.

“There will be strife because it is a very, very competitive business – it is all about results, and the teams are all competing with one another,” he says.

“This is part of sport. It is cut-throat, it is ruthless and it is challenging.”

The fate of the Sevens squad also stirred up controversy when it came under threat following the loss of the annual Glasgow leg of the HSBC World Series to France. Dodson says the SRU was “pretty furious” about the timing of that decision by the International Rugby Board, coming just as the event at Glasgow’s Scotstoun Stadium was about to turn cash-positive.

It provoked a review that some feared would lead to either the axing or downgrading of Scottish Sevens, though in the end the SRU gave the programme a reprieve.

“We want to keep it, but it will change in its purpose in that the Sevens game will be a pathway for the development of the rest of our game where we make our money,” Dodson said, referring to XVs national play.

A core of Sevens players will remain on a full-time basis, along with others coming through the academies who are not quite ready for professional XVs. Sevens will also serve as a returning stage for professionals coming back from injury.

The loss of the HSBC World Series coincides with other factors that not only present opportunities for the Scottish game, but will also challenge its financial progress.

September’s World Cup in England gives Scotland the chance to build upon the Warriors’ Pro12 success, but at the same time illustrates the pitfalls of an international game. With a large proportion of the SRU’s income coming through Ireland and the Continent in the form of euros, the fall in the value of the single currency will likely result in a £1.2m hit for the SRU in this financial year.

In addition to that, Scotland’s governing body anticipates funnelling an extra £1m into its pro teams to plug the gap left by players called up to the national side during the coming months.

Dodson predicts a tighter financial result this season, but still expects a surplus.

“We have got to maintain the level of our professional teams,” he says. “The process is that we make them competitive, then we make them winning, and then we make them champions.

“You have to defend that position, because that is what feeds through to the national side. ‘Should have, could have, would have’ doesn’t matter – it is all about what happens on the competitive field.”

30-second CV

Born: Salford, 1960

Raised: Salford

Education: Salford Grammar

Ambition at school: “I didn’t really have any fixed ambition at school. Some friends had a really fixed idea of what they wanted to be, but I didn’t.”

First job: Delivering newspapers

Can’t live without: My iPhone

Kindle or book: “Kindle, but it used to be books in a big way.”

Favourite city: “Paris – I just think it is the most wonderful walkable city in the world.”

Favourite mode of transport: Car

What car do you drive: BMW X5

What makes you angry: Defeatism

What inspires you: “My daughters – Laura and Hannah.”

The best thing about your job: “It is walking into Murrayfield every morning – it is a privilege. If you can’t get motivated doing that, then you don’t belong here.”