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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

All-conquering Abu Dhabi Harlequins feel financial pinch as sponsorship dries up

Harlequins collected a clean sweep of trophies in 2016/17, but Andy Cole, the chairman, says the club will have to survive on the money they recoup through player subscriptions unless new sponsors can be found for this season.

Abu Dhabi Harlequins swept the board with an unprecedented five trophies in 2016/17. The National
Abu Dhabi Harlequins swept the board with an unprecedented five trophies in 2016/17. The National

The region’s leading rugby club are confident they can continue to thrive despite losing sponsorship deals worth an annual Dh500,000 since the end of last season.

Abu Dhabi Harlequins enjoyed unprecedented success on the field in 2016/17, winning all five trophies on offer in West Asia rugby.

They made a financial loss of Dh30,000 in that time, against a total expenditure that exceeded Dh2 million.

Now they have lost around Dh500,000 worth of sponsorship for the coming campaign, which accounts for almost all the sponsorship revenue that comes into the club

Andy Cole, the Harlequins chairman, insists the club will survive, thanks to the money they recoup through player subscriptions, but says they are in desperate need of new sponsors.

“It has been difficult for a number of years, it is not just something that has happened this season,” Cole said.

“We know, because of our membership numbers that we will be OK, but we will have to increase substantially if we are able to carry on the same as next season.

“We continue to look at other options. There are conversations ongoing, but there are deadlines fast approaching to get branding on kits. We are around a week away from having to order kits, possibly without sponsors on.”

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The champions’ predicament shines a light on the difficulties clubs have in balancing the costs in the unique rugby environment of west Asia.

Rugby fields are at a premium, while air travel is a standard feature of a league that involves sides from across the Gulf.

Documents seen by The National show travel costs for Harlequins, for example, exceeded Dh100,000 last season. They also paid out Dh773,000 for 1,104 hours of use of the immaculate fields at Zayed Sports City.

Those fees were almost double what they had been the previous season, when the club actually made a profit, which was invested for future projects.

However, Cole was grateful to Zayed Sports City to be given complimentary pitch hire for the huge junior tournament the club hosted. “That was worth quite a bit to us,” he said.

Cole is well practiced at being resourceful, having been part of the club since the times when its players trained on a beach at low tide.

He started this stint as chairman seven years ago, and has contributed to the clubs coffers himself, via his insurance brokerage company, Prosperity. He has now had to withdraw that funding.

A three-year deal with Etihad Airways to be the shirt front sponsors, which took the form of cash plus flights, has also come to an end, while agreements with other companies have also finished.

Harlequins have had to raise subscription fees for the coming season to offset some of the lost income. A senior playing membership fee is now just under Dh2,000.

“Our mini and youth programme keeps us going, because of the funding we get from that as it is so big,” Cole said.

“We have had to raise our membership fees for next season by a reasonable amount, just to cover our costs because we haven’t got the sponsorship.

“Because we have so many in the mini and youth section, and we have kept it so low over the years, we know by even raising it by the amount we have, we are still under some other clubs in the UAE.

“We can do that this season, but we can’t keep doing it. At some point, it will have to stop.”

The club have 90 junior managers and coaches, and 20 for their senior teams, all serving voluntarily.

Mike McFarlane, the Harlequins coach, is concerned the effects of the straitened financial situation may have an effect on the field.

While some new players have arrived from city rivals Saracens, he says recruitment has otherwise been “zero”, and some players from their all-conquering first XV of last season have started to look elsewhere.

“We have to remember where we are playing, and the fact we have three international matches as such, involving flights and long distances,” McFarlane said.

“Once there are 26 people involved in that, in terms of flights and management, that becomes expensive. If you take away the sponsorship, that is a massive hit for the club.

“Covering those costs then comes down to the membership base, and with jobs as they are, players can’t step up to afford increases. It is really hard at the moment.

“We have lost a lot of lads this year, because their jobs have come to an end or they have been looking for jobs and they can’t find one. It is really tough.”