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Rugby fans at the 2019 Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens at Hong Kong Stadium. Will they get to return in 2021? Photo: AP

Hong Kong Sevens cancellation leads to HK$151 million loss, but HKRU says it has reserves to weather Covid-19 storm

  • Chief executive Robbie McRobbie says ‘fragility’ of its commercial model exposed as the Sevens accounts for 95 per cent of revenue
  • The union has another year of reserves left and is confident the 2021 Sevens will go ahead, although they are making contingency plans

The Hong Kong Rugby Union has suffered a “significant” financial setback of more than HK$150 million after a year ridden with Covid-19-related postponements and cancellations, it revealed at its annual general meeting on Thursday.

The organisation announced an operating loss of HK$151.7 million in the financial year ending April 30, 2020, a stark difference to its loss of HK$6.6 million in 2019. The overwhelming contributor to the unprecedented numbers was the postponement of the marquee Hong Kong Sevens in April and cancellation of the rescheduled October edition because of the global pandemic.
“We have announced a loss for the 2019/20 year of HK$150 million. Clearly that is a significant number and – for an organisation that has traditionally done very well financially – is a very significant change for us,” said HKRU chief executive Robbie McRobbie, who had said the Hong Kong Sevens accounted for around 95 per cent of its annual revenue.

McRobbie acknowledged it was a hefty financial blow but reassured the local rugby community that they would see the 45th Hong Kong Sevens in April 2-4 next year.

Reigning Hong Kong Sevens champions Fiji and runners-up France before their 2019 Cup final match at Hong Kong Stadium in April. Photo: Winson Wong
“The HK$150 million really represents the losses incurred through the cancellation of the Sevens and also Global Rapid Rugby, which was not completely cancelled as we had one round. Those were major contributing factors,” said McRobbie, who previously explained the union had “planned for every contingency” and budgeted accordingly.

“It goes without saying that the membership are concerned, not over the way in which the board and management have handled the situation, but because we are so heavily, as an organisation and community, reliant on the Sevens.”

Sevens player Salmon Yiu Kam-shing training at home as part of a “Our Work From Home” exhibit by photographer Brian Ching depicting how Hong Kong athletes creatively adapt to the challenges of working from home during social distancing. Photo: Brian Ching

While the union has an approximate “two-year reserve” that will safely see them through at least another year, McRobbie said the pandemic “exposed the fragility” of its commercial model – which had already undergone restructuring as part of World Rugby’s four-year rule.


In May, the HKRU laid off 12 of its 166 full-time staff despite having announced a 2019 revenue increase of HK$250 million, according to last year’s annual report. McRobbie later clarified that the union “still recorded a loss” and has since revised projections.

“Whilst we do see it as a very, very unusual set of circumstances, for us and the game of rugby more broadly, it’s equally been a bit of a wake-up in going back to review commercial models,” he said.

HKRU chief executive Robbie McRobbie says difficult decisions have been made. Photo: Roy Issa

“Even going back to last year, you can see in our strategic plan we had made the decision to move the union back to a position of break-even budgets for this coming four-year cycle. We knew we already had to tighten the purse and address some structural recurrent expenditure.

“Covid was probably less the underlying problem but more of the catalyst to us making the difficult decisions we knew we had to make at some point. Unfortunately, redundancies were made and staff salaries were reduced at management level. We’ve done a lot of the hard yards in terms of getting us on to a more financially sustainable footing going forward.”

The major revenue earners from the Sevens are corporate box income and tickets, which in 2019 raked in HK$116 million and HK$55 million respectively.

Fans rock the South Stand on the last day of the 2019 Sevens. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

“Managing staff morale in a situation like this and managing the expectations of the rugby community is a challenge – there’s no getting away from it,” McRobbie said. “We’re a very close-knit community and everybody is concerned.


“As things stand, the budget for the coming year – even based on the very conservative revenue projections for the Sevens tournament next year – will bring us in at a break-even point, or we might even potentially make a small profit,” McRobbie said, adding confidently that there was no need to cut any of its programmes.

According to its annual report, the union spent HK$58 million on “staff costs” (including exceptional costs of termination benefits), HK$45 million on its 79 men’s and women’s players, and HK$27 million on “clubs and community”.

Hong Kong’s 15s team line up before a Rugby World Cup Qualification 2019 play-off game against Cook Islands at Hong Kong Football Club in 2018. Photo: Ike Li/Ike Images

Although the plan is to tackle next year’s edition with the assumption that the pandemic will have subsided, McRobbie reassured the rugby community that they had set up contingency plans just in case.


“Any responsible organisation in this current environment has to go through the process. We’re fortunate to have gone into this with significant reserves in the bank,” he said.

“In simple terms, it’s fair to say that we will have pretty much used up one year’s worth of reserves by the time we get to April [2021], which leaves us with another year of reserves, so we’ve got that cushion to keep us going while we instigate whatever changes we need to.

Hong Kong women's sevens team captain Melody Li Nim-yam makes a break for the try line against China in 2019. Photo: HKRU

“Come the worst-case scenario with no Sevens next year, we’re still solvent as a company which is critical. We’re not going bankrupt. Having said that, of course we would then need to have a critical review of all areas of operation, strategic plan, and objectives, because realistically we would have to make further adjustments.


“Like any organisation, we’re anticipating and working towards a successful [event], but equally we’re planning for the worst.”

McRobbie added that World Rugby – which was similarly forced to cancel its London, Paris and Singapore sevens events – has reiterated its “100 per cent” backing that the Hong Kong Sevens is a critical tournament for the overall series. Additionally, sponsors HSBC and Cathay Pacific have been “incredibly supportive from day one of this difficult journey”.

Fiji celebrate after winning the 2019 Hong Kong Sevens against France. Photo: Sam Tsang

“It’s very important with regards to the road map for the Olympics. It’s been a very disruptive period for the Sevens programmes across all unions, but heading into the Olympics in the best possible state of preparedness, they’re going to need a number of high-quality tournaments in the months preceding. We are very confident that World Rugby sees us as a top priority tournament heading into 2021,” he said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: HK$151m Loss for Union over canned sevens