Rugby Canada cuts staff, citing ongoing financial impact of COVID-19

TORONTO — Citing COVID-19's effect on its bottom line, Rugby Canada is cutting staff from chief commercial and marketing officer Mark Lemmon to Hall of Famer Al Charron, whose name graces its national training centre.

CEO Allen Vansen says 15 of the organization's 46 staff have been affected — with five people terminated, three laid off and seven facing reduced hours.

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Those affected were told late August, with the changes coming into effect at the end of September.

"We're anticipating a pretty significant impact to our commercial revenues until we can start hosting events and have (player) registration et cetera pick up from a domestic level," said Vansen. "Our hope certainly is by next spring, next summer we'd be in a position to see a resumption of those activities.

"Really what we're trying to do through this process, is as difficult and as unfortunate as those changes are — especially the terminations — is trying to look at 'OK, how do we emerge out of this as better than normal, how do we capitalize on some of the opportunities that always existed for our sport but we never really fulfilled the opportunities that were there?'"

Those terminated include Nathan Abdelnour, manager of match official development; Alana Gattinger, team manager for national senior men's 15s rugby; a physio with the men's sevens team; an events staff co-ordinator and a ticketing/communication co-ordinator.

Prior to the 2019 World Cup, Rugby Canada touted Gattinger as the first woman to serve as a team manager at the tournament.

Charron, who served as Rugby Canada's manager of player advancement and alumni relations, is being laid off. He is one of three Canadians in the World Rugby Hall of Fame — along with Gareth Rees and Heather Moyse.

A former Canadian captain, Charron is one of the faces of Canadian rugby around the world. Also at home, thanks to the Al Charron Rugby Canada National Training Centre which officially opened in February 2018 in Langford, B.C.

"Our hope is we'll be able to bring Al back to work with us on our alumni relations, our fundraising and some other new opportunities that we're pretty excited about, with a bigger focus on the community end of the game where we think Al has a real strong impact for us," Vansen said.

Rugby Canada implemented a 10-per-cent pay cut across the board in April, with a 15-per-cent reduction for senior staff. Some of those cuts are still in effect.

Vansen says Rugby Canada is awaiting further word on the Canada emergency wage subsidy to see if it might impact those laid off or facing reduced hours.

"We do expect certainly as we resume more normal operations, we'll be building our head count back up based on the activity that's in front of us."

There has been one high-profile hire with former Wales coach Rob Howley coming on board as an assistant coach with the Canadian men's team. Howley will also serve as a consultant to the Toronto Arrows.

Vansen says some of Howley's pay is coming from World Rugby, the Arrows and through donors.

"The timing is a little unfortunate," said Vansen. "We've been working with Rob for a number of months to get him on board."

They have been some signs of rugby coming back, with Newfoundland staging several full-contact matches on the weekend.

"That's the backbone, that's the foundation of our organization," Vansen said of the domestic game. "It's a huge part of the reason that Rugby Canada exists. It's not just to operate our national teams, although that's a huge part of our budget, a huge focus."

Hosting international matches and events is also key. The men's and women's World Series sevens stops in Vancouver and Langford help drive revenue.

Vansen called both "huge events for us."

Rugby Canada spent $14.95 million last year with some $9 million of that going on national teams. Staff salaries, benefits and commissions totalled $1.2 million in 2019, down from $2.4 million in 2018.

The organization brought in $14.91 million with some $4.8 million of that coming from Sport Canada, World Rugby and other grants.

Another $5.8 million came from a combination of donations, fundraising, national teams, merchandise and sponsorship among other things. National registration fees accounted for $1.6 million.

In July, Rugby Canada chairman Tim Powers said the governing body was running a number of different models "that see us reducing in size and expenditure and revenue collection from 25 per cent to 60-plus per cent.''

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2020.

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