What is the cost of cancelling a sporting event?

For smaller-scale operators, cancellation due to weather can have a huge financial impact

When World Rugby announced last Friday morning that both England vs France and New Zealand vs Italy would be cancelled and not rescheduled due to the threat of Typhoon Hagibis, the general reaction around the world was one of confusion and finger-pointing towards an organisation which opted to host their showpiece event in a country blighted by extreme weather during the very season when it is most common.

Fans who had tickets for both games – as well as the Canada and Namibia match which suffered the same fate on Sunday morning – were refunded but World Rugby did not offer any refund for travel or accommodation expenses, leaving thousands of supporters hugely out of pocket, especially a large number of England fans who would have targeted the match as the pick of their pool stage fixtures.

There are few precedents for similar scale events being cancelled but one example was the cancellation of the Cheltenham Festival in 2001 due to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, a move which cost the betting industry an estimated £100 million and the local economy £10 million. While punters had their tickets refunded for Cheltenham, many local hotels withheld deposits in order to soften the blow somewhat.

Although Ireland is not susceptible to extremes such as Typhoon Hagibis, the threat of cancellation is still a very real thing in this country because of the unpredictable weather. Large-scale events such as the All-Ireland final would never be hit too hard because there are already replay dates confirmed and there is never any danger of the stadium not selling out on a different day but inclement weather can cause some serious problems for other events.

Punters and organisers at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival have to keep a very close eye on the weather given that it is run between December 26th and 29th. The racecourse has invested heavily in recent years on better drainage to lower the risk of flooding and, as former chief executive Pat Keogh explains, measures can also be taken against frost but it is a constant battle.

“In the case of frost you can have some contingencies whereby you cover parts of the track – the landing areas and the take-off areas at fences or hurdles in particular. You put covers on them and that would take out a certain amount of frost but if that frost goes below a certain depth in the ground it might not come out. So if you’ve got temperatures of -5C, -6C then all of a sudden the frost is getting into the ground and it may not come out. And of course the other big problem is snow. So if you’ve got a big heavy fall of snow then that’s it, there’s nothing really you can do,” he says.

If a day is cancelled, racegoers who have paid in advance for tickets or hospitality packages will be refunded but the real problem lies in trying to reschedule the races. If the other three days are to go ahead as planned then some of the bigger races from the cancelled day may be slotted in but sometimes it simply might not be possible meaning horses, jockeys and owners must change their plans while bookmakers take a hit.

“In the case of Christmas time you look to reschedule as quickly as possible but a rescheduled meeting is never the same,” says Keogh, who is now chief executive of the Curragh racecourse.

“For Leopardstown at a Christmas meeting the attendances average about 15,000 per day for all four days so if you reschedule a meeting you can probably halve your attendance. In terms of hospitality then, if someone says they’re going to go with their family on the 27th, say, and then that meeting is rescheduled a lot of people would have other plans so a lot of the hospitality bookings fall away.”

In the case of Leopardstown, if a meeting is abandoned before the gates open customers can get a full refund if requested through the ticket office, otherwise the ticket will be valid for the rescheduled meeting. If gates do open and the meeting is abandoned before the third race then punters will be offered a ticket for the next raceday.

But it’s not only horse racing that stands at risk of big financial losses in the case of bad weather.

Since becoming a full International Cricket Council member in 2017, the Ireland team now play numerous big matches against some of the best teams in the world on these shores but, no matter what time of the year it is, there is always a serious threat of cancellation or postponement which can cost the organisation significant amounts of money.

When you're awash with cash it's easier to do. We're not, so it's harder

Richard Holdsworth is the performance director for Cricket Ireland and he explains that, while for some series reserve days can be put in place to guard against a day being washed out, that is not always possible if the visiting team is only available to stay for a limited amount of time and it is also quite costly as you are budgeting for another day’s play.

“All your infrastructure costs, they’re in already, they’re in for the series. You’re not paying anymore for playing the reserve day. What you are paying extra for is the security, it’s the stewarding, it’s the ground staff, it’s the catering, you’re talking around €60,000 or €70,000 a day that you’d be looking at to put on an extra day, something in that sort of region. The chance of you recouping any of that through ticket sales is unlikely when it’s short notice, when you’re putting on an extra game when people aren’t expecting it. In days gone by where we’ve had England over and we’ve just had one game and it’s a washout, that’s the end of it. No reserve days, everyone is disappointed and we then have to refund all the pre-sale tickets. That’s an administrative nightmare and it’s obviously costly to insure against all of that, which we do, but that insurance is expensive, very expensive.”

Insurance against the cancellation of sporting events is very common across the board but, as Holdsworth says, it’s far from cheap and for an organisation such as Cricket Ireland there can often be a decision to make as to whether it’s worth it.

“When you’re awash with cash it’s easier to do. We’re not, so it’s harder. You can insure against different things. So we can insure against hospitality, we can insure against pre-sale ticket sales but of course you can’t insure against walk-ups and you’re looking at in the region of €100,000-€120,000 a game to insure it. You then have to sort of go, well that’s over €350,000 for a three-match series. You then have to work out, okay well what’s our revenues going to be from these games? So you’re getting a broadcast fee, you’re getting ticket sales but how good are those against paying the insurance? We don’t have to insure it but there’s a risk if we don’t. With our turnover it’s a significant hit.”

This year’s Ashes series in the UK was blighted by bad weather on a number of occasions with the second, third and fourth Tests all losing play to rain. In that case the England and Wales Cricket Board refunded customers the full price of their ticket if fewer than 15 overs were bowled in the day whereas if the match ended between the 15th over and the 30th over, customers would get 50 per cent back. For T20 internationals, 10 overs are the minimum needed to be bowled for customers not to get a refund but, as Holdsworth explains, that figure can be quite flexible depending on the circumstances.

“We did have a situation before in a big game where we bowled something like 12 overs and it was called off but what we did there was decide that there’s an element of goodwill here. According to our regulations we don’t have to refund anybody but we’ve got paying public who we want onside so what we did with them was say that you don’t get a refund but keep hold of your ticket and we’ll give you a free ticket for the next game.

“Ten overs in the day obviously isn’t a great deal. You’ve come for a day out and a bit of entertainment and it’s a bit frustrating. That’s fairly standard around the world, that refund policy, but we’ve done things over the years to at least try and give the punters something back.”

Unfortunately for the fans who missed out in Japan, there is not much they can get back and while Ireland may not get hit by a typhoon any time soon, World Rugby has shown over the last few days just how important it is to have contingency plans in place.

– This article is part of a series of consumer-based sports stories. If you have any queries, stories or issues regarding travel, tickets, sport on television or anything else you can email rcroke@irishtimes.com or via Twitter @Ruaidhri_Croke.