Kate Hardcastle on saving Bradford Bulls, reviving rugby league and inspiring a generation

By Kate Burlaga.   Last Updated: 29/10/13 12:16pm

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Kate Hardcastle grew up on the Odsal terraces before becoming a non-executive director of the Bradford Bulls when financial difficulties took hold

Kate Hardcastle grew up on the Odsal terraces before becoming a non-executive director of the Bradford Bulls when financial difficulties took hold

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Kate Hardcastle remembers the moment she fell for the club she would one day help drag back from the abyss.

Bradford Bulls were still Bradford Northern, November was biting and a touring Australia were in town. She had watched from the Odsal terraces with three generations, a small child wrapped in her father's coat, but on that winter evening in 1986, she led out the players whose faces she knew from well-thumbed match programmes.

"I'd seen my father and his father bond in that stadium," she remembers. "When I ran out as a mascot that night, I felt such pride. There were thousands and thousands of people. I was only nine but that atmosphere, that experience, it affected me, it changed me."

When Bradford slid into administration in June 2012, forced to appeal to fans for the £1m they needed to stay afloat, the businesswoman who has lived in Hong Kong and Australia but never forgot her roots, felt compelled to step in. Liquidation was a grim reality until restaurant owner Omar Khan, backed by another adopted Bradfordian, local MP Gerry Sutcliffe, bought the club back. Hardcastle, as a lifelong fan with valuable business acumen, joined them in an unlikely alliance and was later appointed to the board, the club's first female director.

"It had gone down to the last few hours as to whether that business, that brand, that part of the community was going to be there or not," the retail expert, born in Huddersfield but raised in Bradford, recalls. "I don't think it's a secret that there weren't many people ready to step in and take it on. But it's a matter of the heart for me, for my family.

"When the club went into administration, I was with my grandparents and their friends, reaching into their pockets, pulling in money to try and keep the club there. It's not just about sport, it's about community. If you're in a town or a city that has a sports team as part of its income stream, as a source of pride, you understand the ramifications of taking that away. That's why I got involved."

The months since have been testing. Back in July, Khan had to allay fears the club was in trouble again when some players revealed on Twitter that they had not been paid. Two months later, he announced he was leaving because of poor health and the club changed hands again. Ryan Whitcut, a general manager under Khan, and Mark Moore, a local businessman, have taken the reins but the club's resurrection, on, as well as off the field (the Bulls missed out on the Super League play-offs for a fifth successive year) remains a work in progress.

"I've only been here since February but in some ways, it feels like a lifetime," Hardcastle says. "When Omar stepped down he said the club was in a strong position and that's true but its strength lies in its existence. The fact is that they're still there, a year on, and they've played, and they've played reasonably.

"Since I've been in place I think you've seen a set of sensible - they might not be sexy - decisions to create a legacy. You can't wave a magic wand and if you did, I wouldn't trust what was happening. So don't think the club is okay forever now. We still need investment, just like the game at large needs investment; there's no quick fix."

Hardcastle's remit (she is contracted to 20 days' consultancy per year but clocks up many more hours) is focused on the areas she believes the Bulls - in a struggling Yorkshire city with a fit-again football team - must embrace: smarter branding and marketing, with an emphasis on women and family.

She has organised matchday childcare, charity fundraisers and fashion shows, remodelled the club's food and merchandise offerings, introduced women's groups and local businesses to Odsal. Rugby league chiefs would do well to take note: a damning report in January revealed that Super League clubs had combined debts of more than £60m.

"Here's where I go from fan to businesswoman, trying to sell a product," she says animatedly. "I would want to take the sport to wider groups of people; that's how I would gain new sponsors, that's how I would gain extra revenue and reignite the media interest.

"It's about attracting people who wouldn't consider rugby league as their first choice, who might not be from the areas where it's traditionally appealed. What has rugby league got to offer? We need to showcase it as being really economical, really fun as a family day out."

Glamorous, smart, a multi-tasker - she is also founder of a charity, a guest speaker, a semi-professional singer and a mother to a four-year old - Hardcastle has been dubbed the First Lady of rugby league, the sport's Karren Brady.

She laughs at the comparison with West Ham's Apprentice-starrring vice-chairman but understands why it lingers, an indictment of the sporting boardroom where men still grossly outnumber women. Minister for Women, Maria Miller, wants 25 per cent of boardrooms at sporting bodies to be made up of women by 2017. Is enforced quotas really the way to go?

"Of course someone should get a job on merit but something needs to change," Hardcastle insists. "There is an issue of opportunities not being there so maybe we have to look at quotas as gateways. I had knowledge of the sport, of the club and of business but I don't think this opportunity would have been as readily available had Bradford not been in the situation they were in, I'm very honest about that.

"Clubs need to understand which skillsets are needed and bring those people in - have they got someone to increase the female fanbase or improve the family experience? We've got to make sure the balanced boardrooms are there and if we need a quota to change that forever, let's have one."

There is another childhood memory that still feels fresh as Hardcastle speaks passionately about changing the make-up of the boardroom, of the terraces. She was 11 and angry, angry that her teachers had told her rugby was not for girls - until her father set up a team and, with no one else to play, pitted them against her brother's side.

"We played on a professional pitch, we beat the boys and I had the top tackle score," she smiles. "I remember the adrenaline rush. Life was never the same.

"You can get bogged down in the today when you're actually part of the journey. I'm a baton-carrier, I can help make or break the opportunities for my daughter and her generation, whether that's in sport or in business. That's what gets me up in the morning."

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