Mark Dodson explains how Scottish Rugby survived pandemic with help of Scottish Government grant, CVC cash and resilience of staff and partners

Trying to steer Scottish rugby through the pandemic has not been easy but SRU chief executive Mark Dodson can see signs of hope emerging.

Scottish Rugby chief executive Mark Dodson. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS

A £15 million grant from the Scottish Government has helped soften the blow and negotiations are also close to completion with CVC Capital Partners which will see the private equity firm take a 14.5 per cent stake in the Six Nations.

That deal is reportedly worth £300m-plus over five years to the participating countries and Scottish Rugby could benefit to the tune of £50m.

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CVC has already invested in the Guinness Pro14, a deal that yielded an initial chunk of £8.38m for the SRU last year.

Socially distanced fans when Murrayfield hosted Edinburgh v Glasgow Warriors as a test event in August. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS

Next on the agenda is the return of fans, and Dodson is looking to next season after conceding defeat in his bid to have supporters at this season’s Six Nations matches at BT Murrayfield.

A target date is likely to be June 26 when the Edinburgh stadium is due to host the British & Irish Lions’ Test match against Japan, a curtain-raiser for the composite side’s proposed summer tour which is scheduled to take place in South Africa but could yet be diverted to Australia or even the UK and Ireland.

The twin financial boost of government aid and CVC cash has protected the Union against the worst effects of Covid-19. There have been pay cuts and furloughing but no redundancies.

“The Six Nations behind closed doors is something we planned for given the impact of Covid. But it does make a substantial hole in revenue,” acknowledged Dodson.

Mark Dodson said Scotland would be in the market to host a Lions Test against the Springboks if the tour came to the UK. Picture: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

“We have had a material grant from government that has allowed us to repair our balance sheet to a certain extent and that has been enormously helpful. We have also done some refinancing around our business. We expected no crowds so we planned accordingly and the business is in a strong position going forward now.”

As well as the £15m Scottish Government grant, the SRU is also due to take receipt of a £5m loan from Holyrood.

The figures caused some raised eyebrows within Scottish football where some felt rugby had received preferential treatment.

More accurately, Dodson and his right-hand man Dominic McKay are reaping the rewards of some skilled negotiations and a less confrontational stance.

Dodson is about to lose McKay, with the SRU’s chief operating officer Celtic-bound, but he intends to replace him within a “restructuring” of the Union.

“Dom moving to Celtic has probably just given us a chance to look once more at what we’re going to do,” said Dodson. “The role will be replaced and we will make sure we take our time and get some outstanding candidates.”

While uncertainty remains around the Lions and an exact date as to when supporters can return, the chief executive is confident the CVC Six Nations deal will soon be announced.

“The conversations are going really well, we’re at the tail end of those negotiations now and I expect a successful outcome,” Dodson said. “Again, it’s a hugely complex deal. There are six unions and four tax jurisdictions and we need time to get that thing in place.

“I imagine it’s between our lawyers and advisers and as soon as we’re in position to announce anything, we’ll let you know.”

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The Lions tour is equally complex, with concern around the South African variant of Covid forcing the organisers into looking at other options. Dodson confirmed that Scotland would be in the market to host a Lions Test against the Springboks should the tour be diverted to the UK and Ireland

“If there are changes to the original tour programme and it does come back to the UK we’ll be as interested as anyone else is to take advantage of that,” he said.

But Dodson, who is a member of the British & Irish Lions board, said tour plans remain in a state of flux.

“What we’ve got to do is look at all the options, the facts, from a sporting, economic and player welfare perspective and then take a view. At the moment we’ve not been presented with the detail that sits behind any options that may be on the table.”

The return of crowds remains tantalisingly out of reach for the moment but Dodson is hopeful that will change in the summer.

“It’s a difficult one,” he said. “We’ve just seen the UK and Scottish Government talk about the potential of crowds coming back, but we’re going to have to wait until people are more categoric. I hope we have crowds back towards the end of this season but in real terms it would be sensible to look to have fans back for the start of next season.

“If crowds can come in before then, we’re ready. As soon as government is ready to allow crowds, we’re ready to go.

“We had a very successful test event, we know how to put these games on and we’re trusted. All we’re waiting for is a green light – we’ll take crowds as soon as it’s safe to do so. Safety remains our paramount objective here, it’s not about our finances, it’s about making sure we keep people safe in our stadia.”

Dodson thanked the SRU’s staff for their resilience during the pandemic and also praised the Union’s partners.

“It’s been an amazing effort by everybody,” he said. “We’ve also had some great support from our sponsors and broadcasters, who’ve stuck with us through thick and thin.

"We were a strong business going into the pandemic and we’ll be a strong business coming out of it. That size of a shock to the business is always going to destabilise it for a period but I think we’ve come through the examination really well and I’m optimistic about the future.”

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