07 August 2022

Durham Sharks launch crowdfunding campaign in bid to save Premier 15s future

07 August 2022

DMP Durham Sharks are fighting the ‘devastating’ prospect of sudden extinction from the Allianz Premier 15s with an emergency crowdfunding campaign.

The Darlington-based women’s rugby side have been part of the top flight since the league’s 2017 inception but now face a shortfall of what they estimate to be about £50,000 to cover basic running costs necessary to remain in the league.

The news came as a huge blow to nine-year Sharks veteran Emily Hunter, who could not help but marvel at the timing when their head of performance revealed the club would not be able to make ends meet – it was just days after the Lionesses’ Euro 2022 victory, when headlines across England heralded a new era for women’s sport.

“It feels like we go one step forward and then 20 back,” Hunter, one of several Sharks players who posted a team letter of appeal on social media this weekend, told the PA news agency.

Hunter said players are meeting with the Sharks’ chairman on Monday, one of the reasons they are racing against the clock to meet that day as a deadline.

“It actually just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said.  “I don’t understand how we can have successes from the Lionesses winning the Euros, the Red Roses winning the Six Nations and being the favourite to win the World Cup, England awarded the women’s T20 World Cup in 2026, all the fantastic women winning at the Commonwealth Games… Women’s rugby is at the forefront, and loads of money is getting invested, and I can’t make sense of it, that we’re in this situation.”

The team is also appealing to individuals or businesses willing to commit to underwriting any additional shortfall this season.

Commercial partners are increasingly seeing the appeal of women’s sport – from Barclays extending its Women’s Super League sponsorship to the Women’s Championship, to TikTok coming on board as the first title sponsor of the Women’s Six Nations this year.

But clubs like the Sharks, the only top-flight women’s rugby team in the north- east of England, are still facing the harsh reality of not having the cash to continue. The team receive some funding from the Rugby Football Union but say it is simply not enough.

Most sides in the Premier 15s are affiliated with a Gallagher Premiership men’s team, and many players are now at least semi-professional, but that is not the case with the Sharks and players like Hunter, who said balancing the crowdfunding campaign along with work feels like she has “two full-time jobs”.

Hunter has seen first-hand how sport can transform the lives of disadvantaged young people in her job as a tutor developer for the sport charity Street Games. Her concern is not just for her own squad, but for the future of women’s and girls’ rugby in the region. The next-nearest Premier 15s team, Sale Sharks, is more than two hours away by car.

“It’s like you’re taking her opportunity away,” said Hunter. “There’s no way, it’s not easy to get down to Sale Sharks or wherever to play, or even just watch.

“For me it’s just been a hobby, but it’s a hobby that you take seriously and you live your life around. But we’ve got the younger generation now coming through and have real aspirations and opportunity to make a career out of this. I’m more gutted [for them].”

In June, the RFU announced it was investing up to £220million in the professional women’s game over the next decade, with plans to professionalise in that time. This season will also mark the end of the current league line-up, with interested clubs invited to apply as part of a new round of tendering later this year.

While Hunter believes the professionalisation and investment are “fantastic, because that’s where it deserves to be” she also warned that smaller clubs like hers could be at a disadvantage, with established organisations like Bath, London Irish, Ealing and Newcastle among those who have launched or expanded their women’s offering over the past three-year cycle.

Hunter said: “The big teams will all be like, ‘let’s have a big slice of this cake because it’s fantastic’.”

But even that is a long way down the road for the club in crisis. For now, Hunter and her team-mates will simply keep fighting for their future.

She added: “There’s no rest for the wicked. It’s a must, not a want at this point. We have to do it.”

The RFU said in a statement: “DMP Durham Sharks are currently not in a position to secure the level of funding required to compete in the 2022-23 Allianz Premier 15s.

“The RFU and DMP Durham Sharks are  working together to attain a suitable outcome given the circumstances. We understand this is a difficult and uncertain time for all involved and will update as and when we can.”

Link to the Sharks’ crowdfunding campaign: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/p/keep-elite-womens-rugby-in-the-north-east

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