Ulster Rugby is owned by The IRFU, the Irish Rugby Football Union.
Ulster earns a significant portion of its income through sponsorship details, merchandise, and season tickets.
However, the IRFU take their TV licensing income, tournament prize money, and some other revenue streams.
Eventually, the IRFU redistributes part of that revenue back to the northern province. This may seem complicated, but this article breaks it down clearly.
Ulster Ownership Model
Ulster operates under a typical subsidiary/parent company model with the IRFU.
Ulster has a Chief Executive Officer and other officials that run the day-to-day operations of a large sports club. However, these officers ultimately report to the IRFU.
Major decisions must be cleared by the head office in Lansdowne Road, Dublin.
When rugby turned professional in 1996, the Irish authorities were not in favour. But they had no choice but to take action.
The IRFU registered a holding company in May of 1997 called “Ulster Rugby Limited” to manage professional rugby in the northern region of the island of Ireland.
You may know that there are three other professional Irish clubs owned by the IRFU. These three are registered within the Republic of Ireland.
But Ulster’s home ground is in Belfast, which is part of the United Kingdom. That’s why their limited company is registered in the UK.
Philip Browne was one of the original directors in the early registration documents. He was also Chief Executive of the IRFU.
How Ulster And The IRFU Split Their Revenue
Ulster hasn’t won silverware in some years. But they generally get to the quarterfinals and semi-finals of domestic and European tournaments.
The teams that get to these final stages still get prize money. You may be surprised to learn that the IRFU gets all the prize money for results in the European Championship.
The parent company also takes a significant portion of prize money when Ulster finishes in a high position in the domestic professional tournament (the URC).
The IRFU also takes all the TV licensing money when Ulster matches are shown on Sky, BT Sports, Irish television, and any other TV networks.
And wait, there’s more!
The IRFU also takes half of the gate receipts for Ulster’s pool matches in the European Championship.
If they get to a quarter-final, the IRFU got those receipts too.
If the team in white goes further than that, then the ERC takes the gate revenue for a semi-final or final.
Ulster ultimately benefits from what the IRFU takes
You may be thinking that this seems a little unfair.
However, after the IRFU has taken the revenue, they redistribute it back to their subsidiary branches. In other words, part of Ulster’s annual budget comes back from the IRFU.
The downside (purely from the Ulster point of view) is that they share this redistribution with three other provinces: Leinster, Munster, and Connacht.
Wait, aren’t they Ulster’s biggest rivals? Well, yes. But that’s how Irish rugby works.
Does Ulster Control Any Revenue?
Ulster keeps a portion of the gate receipts, but they also have direct control over other revenue sources.
For example, they keep all revenue from sales of season tickets.
The Ulster executives are responsible for negotiating sponsorship deals, and the branch also keeps all that income.
Kingspan itself is a massive building manufacturer and they paid a handsome price for the naming rights of the old Ravenhill Stadium.
Other sponsors include a sportswear company, a broadband company, and an energy supplier.
The Ulster branch also retains income from the merchandise that they sell online and at their Belfast stadium.
They also are mandated by the IRFU to arrange specific sponsorships or salary top-ups for their top players. You can read more in our article on how much Ulster rugby players earn.
The IRFU retains oversight over Ulster
Ulster has control over season tickets and sponsorship, but the IRFU still sanctions the big decisions.
For example, Ulster couldn’t just decide to quadruple their season ticket pricing. The IRFU would have the final say on whether that was good for the sport in general.
Similarly, Ulster must get sponsorships approved by the head office in Lansdowne Road. Any business with a shady or controversial background would be rejected.
Who Owns Kingspan Stadium?
Ulster’s home stadium is owned by the IRFU but managed by Ulster Rugby Limited.
My understanding is that Ulster Rugby takes all the income from food and beverage concessions on match days.
The redeveloped stadium also has conference and function rooms that are rented out for business events. This revenue also goes directly to Ulster Rugby.
Ulster Is Partly Funded By The IRFU
I haven’t seen an official statement from Ulster Rugby about what percentage of their income comes from the IRFU.
However, a former CEO of Leinster Rugby talked about this a few years ago and it worked out at about 21%. If you’re curious, the sum from the IRFU was four million per year.
The four professional clubs on the island of Ireland are largely treated similarly. So, I’d expect that Ulster receives a similar annual budget.