Comment: Why the dynamic of professional sport in Doncaster is changing - and not for the better

Doncaster Rovers Belles say the financial criteria associated with the new top flight are 'beyond their means'.
Doncaster Rovers Belles say the financial criteria associated with the new top flight are 'beyond their means'.

The dynamic of professional sport in Doncaster is changing - and not for the better.

Since moving down to South Yorkshire in 2006 it has always been my hope to see one of the town’s major teams play at the very top level.

Doncaster Knights currently cannot afford to play Premiership rugby.

Doncaster Knights currently cannot afford to play Premiership rugby.

Doncaster Rovers, under Sean O’Driscoll, briefly flirted with the idea of reaching the Championship play-offs. And then came the decline.

Inspired by Paul Cooke, and thanks to the groundwork of his predecessor Tony Miller, the Dons finished fourth in the Championship in 2014. Now they’re struggling to get out of League One.

Doncaster Knights came within a whisker of reaching the Aviva Premiership only last year - losing narrowly to Bristol in the play-off final - but are currently finding it difficult to live up to that billing. The Championship play-offs have also since been scrapped for a straightforward one up, one down system that weighs heavily in favour of the (richer) club relegated from the Premiership.

Doncaster Rovers Belles, of course, have recently represented the town at the top level, not without controversy.

And it is their current plight which underlines just how the goalposts are moving in a very worrying and depressing direction.

The Belles currently sit top of the FAWSL2 table but whatever happens on the pitch for the remainder of this season they will not be playing in next year’s fully professional top flight, a new division designed to increase competitiveness among the game’s (more financially well off) elite.

As reported in last week’s Free Press, the club has prioritized ‘sustainability’ by applying for a Tier 2 licence rather than pushing the boat out for membership of the new league.

When the funding required to gain a Tier 1 licence is reported to be around the £350,000 mark, who can really blame them?

Earlier this year Notts County Ladies, formerly Lincoln Ladies, went out of business and it is unthinkable to consider one of the most famous names in women’s football suffering the same fate.

It is a similar story at Castle Park where Knights chiefs have also prioritized ‘sustainability’ over any ambition of playing in the Premiership.

On the eve of last season’s play-off semi-final with London Irish they announced that, due to the expenses involved with playing at the top level, they would be staying in the Championship regardless of how they performed on the pitch. That stance is likely to remain the same for the foreseeable future.

Therefore the prospect of Doncaster competing at an elite level, very sadly, appears to be a dream that is dying. Quite simply, the town’s clubs are being priced out.

Rovers and Dons fans can at least hold onto the dream.

Of course, they are both miles away from the Premier League and Super League respectively, and would require significant financial investment just to mount any sort of realistic challenge.

But however improbable it may seem, it remains a possibility.

On the contrary, the almost ring-fenced nature of the top tiers in women’s football and rugby union, where the prerequisite is for pounds in the bank rather than points earned on the pitch, underlines an unpleasant and uneasy cultural shift in sport which values cold hard cash over a club’s ability on the field, its history, its potential and its value within the local community.

Belles and Knights are effectively playing for nothing more than pride now. They have both reached a ceiling. You could even argue that they have both already become ‘feeder clubs’ for teams fortunate to have more funding.

The most worrying aspect of that, from a Doncaster perspective, is when you consider what might happen a few years down the line.

Both Belles and Knights, and Rovers and Dons for that matter, are fortunate enough to be supported by benefactors who are passionate about the clubs they run and/or own.

But how long do you go on funding something that can only go so far?

It is a sad, frustrating and slightly worrying situation. No wonder, then, that ‘sustainability’ has become the buzz word across sport in Doncaster.

The true essence of sport is about challenging yourself to be the best you can be, pitting your skills against the best opposition possible.

But when I consider the predicament of Belles and Knights - and the way their dream of reaching the very top has been taken out of their reach - all I keep asking myself is ‘when does sport actually stop being sport?’

The goalposts are moving and one thing is clear: money talks louder than sport ever will.