Ask any random Scotland fan on the street to pick Mark Dodson out of a lineout and it seems likely they’ll fail. The man is not exactly a celebrity. Type his name into Google and he’ll eventually pop up fourth behind a not-very-famous video game actor, a sound engineer and a chef from Exeter. He has no Wikipedia page, no incendiary Twitter account and to our knowledge has never sneaked onto the pitch pretending to be a waterboy.
This is perhaps surprising given that he’s been the Chief Executive of Scottish Rugby Union Ltd for eleven years now. Perhaps not. What supporter would rather spend time worrying about financials than player performances?
For that matter, who would rather discuss “Scottish Rugby Union Ltd” than the Scotland Rugby team?
But such is the world we live in and if you don’t like it, something about communists.
Scottish rugby is as much a business as Amazon or Asda and businesses exist for one universal, irrefutable, incontrovertible purpose. The acquisition of monies. Fans are more prone to talk of fly-halves and defence coaches, but the conversation about Chief Financial Officers (Hilary Spence), Presidents (Ian Barr) and Chairmen (John Jeffrey) is there to be had as well.
In that respect, Dodson and the SRU Board have been a great success. According to Statistica, Scottish Rugby’s turnover increased by over 70% between 2011 and 2019.
And the Board have been well compensated for this success. The SRU’s highest paid Director, almost certainly Dodson, pulled in total emoluments of £933k in 2019, & £434k following coronavirus cuts in 2020 (for comparison, Finn Russell is reportedly the highest paid British player in the world and is paid £850k per annum before bonuses).
To put this in context, 2019 saw a World Cup humiliation as Scotland imploded in the group stages, a £70,000 fine from World Rugby for Dodson’s comments on the potential cancellation of the Japan game, losses to Wales, France, Japan, Ireland (twice), the Under 20s were relegated from the top tier of competition, Scotland Women bore witness to an 80-0 thrashing at the hands of England, and Glasgow and Edinburgh both exited Europe at the quarter finals.
And herein lies the ugly truth about the professionalisation of the game. If the SRU is a business, and businesses only exist to make money, then the rugby on the field is merely a product to be sold. “National pride” becomes an irrelevance. It doesn’t matter if Edinburgh and Glasgow win anything; it matters if they turn a profit.
The only incentive to grow the game is the promise of financial return and the SRU’s stated commitment to such seems at stark odds with the announcement made on Wednesday that they were gutting the Sevens program in Scotland in favour of yet more Team GB homogenisation. The direct result of this is that the nation that invented Rugby Sevens at Melrose over a hundred years ago will no longer be directly represented in the Sevens World Series.
This profit-first approach is also why it took so long for Scotland’s women to be given the opportunity to be full-time professional rugby players. Social justice be damned; it’s now, in a post #MeToo #TimesUp world that the SRU thinks they can make real money off women playing rugby, so it’s finally time to invest.
It’s why despite the myriad problems imposed upon the game by only having two professional teams, a third remains naught more than a pipe dream.
Where, more than one person asked, was Mark Dodson when Gregor Townsend and Finn Russell were sniping at each other in the press in 2020? Surely the right man to bring together head coach and playmaker was their boss, right?
No. That’s not his job. He doesn’t work for the fans who wanted the situation resolved; he works for the board who wanted quarterly growth.
It’s only fair to note that if you bother to read the latest of the SRU’s financial statements filed with Companies House, the opening line is a promising one: “The principal activity of the Group is to promote the game of Rugby throughout Scotland.”
It’s followed by two dense pages about how much money they’ve made in the past year.
Glasgow Warriors immediate follow-up to a fairly awful season was to advertise more expensive season tickets then fire their coach.
Edinburgh’s new ‘stadium’ was built to such a cheap degree that the globally available technology of free-standing rooves was eschewed for some seventy-odd pillars obscuring spectators view of the pitch. There are more architecturally impressive bus stops.
And this makes perfect sense, because as much as Glasgow fans will complain that the price is too high, the tickets will still sell and as much as Edinburgh fans complain about the view, they’ll put up with it to cheer on their team. That’s worth about two-and-a-half million pounds according to the SRU’s statements.
As much as Scotland fans complain about baffling selection policies, nonsensical on-field decision-making, lacklustre performances, disappointing tournament placements, pointless box kicks, woeful restarts, faltering lineouts and white line fever, there they are, year after year, packing out Murrayfield to the tune of some sixteen million pounds a year.
Scotland fans are in one sense, the immediate consumer of the SRU’s product. But in another very real one, they are an exploitable resource.
Facebook is free because the company can sell users inputted data. Your Auntie Betty is not the customer; she’s the product. Scottish rugby is not free, but in exactly the same way its fans are sold as a resource to external companies.
The SRU is paid by Sky because the SRU can deliver subscribers to Sky Sports to watch something even as dispiriting as an Argentina series lost in the last minute. They’re paid by Macron and BT because they can deliver hundreds of thousands of people who will spend £80 on an undersized navy blue T-shirt with a telecoms logo on the front.
And on and on it goes.
“So what?” one might reasonably ask. That’s the way it is and it’s certainly not unique to Scotland. Why bother about it at all?
Ask yourself this: is there anyone who really, truly, honestly, hand-on-heart, seriously believes this particular Scotland team is going anywhere beyond the group stages of the World Cup when they’re drawn with South Africa and Ireland as neighbours?
And if everyone can and has seen this coming for two years before the event, why hasn’t anything been done to address it?
Whether or not Gregor Townsend should still be head coach is not the issue here, but rather the fact that there is absolutely no question that whatever transpires between now and then, he will lead Scotland into the World Cup. Fans are resigned to this. It’s an inevitability.
In June it was announced that Mark Dodson had his contract as Chief Executive Officer extended until 2025. It seemed an odd time if you were led to believe it was based on the onfield performance of Scotland, Edinburgh, Glasgow, or the development of the game beyond.
But of course it wasn’t based on any of those things, just like the decision to stick with Townsend. It was based on how much money the company makes and is projected to make over the next few years.
Scotland are going out in the groups. Everyone knows it. But the calculation has been made; that is a good enough result for the money it will bring in relative to the expenditure it took to get there.
Put another way,
The SRU have accepted mediocrity as an acceptable outcome on the pitch because the SRU doesn’t care about the outcome on the pitch so long as the financials keep rising.
For sure the SRU would make much more money if Scotland were world champions, but they make plenty as it is, so a real incentive to actually develop and grow the game is lacking.
Scotland is not a poor nation. It is not a particularly small nation and its populace is not unusually destitute. Rugby may not be its favourite team sport but as the number two, there is more than enough cash to fund success on the field, if success on the field is actually the goal.
But as Scotland trudge along to what seems like an inevitable embarrassment at the World Cup after which senior players will retire, a new coach will surely be appointed, press releases will be made with lots of talk about “excitement” and “development”; meanwhile fans on the sidelines are simply getting older and wondering if cricket would really be so bad if they gave it a chance (I very much enjoy baseball – Ed.),
As this inexorable train of shite meaninglessly drags itself towards hopes of a three-win Six Nations in 2024 and we start the whole godforsaken charade again, Mark Dodson will still be the CEO of Scottish Rugby because Mark Dodson has done a good job.
He’s made The Company lots of money.