With a less-lucrative broadcast deal on the horizon, and talk again of restructuring the professional game, big changes are afoot. If the sport doesn’t make the right moves, it could be fatal for many clubs and aspects of a sport that has somehow always managed to punch above its weight.
2022 is a seminal moment in rugby league’s modern-day history. Someone must devise a reboot and refresh of a sport which is desperately stagnating. Shane Richardson has offered his suggestion: here is another ten-point, game-wide plan to drag rugby league into the modern era and potentially enable it to move forwards with renewed confidence and vigour.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool rugby league supporter. Football is my love, but I believe both sports can learn from each other. Crucially, rugby league can borrow an increasingly-popular marketing tool from football to keep the turnstiles clicking.
Attendances are dwindling. That is an inescapable fact. There are many contributing factors to that, including Covid-19, but one clear issue is that for a sport which is predominantly played in working-class communities, pricing structures are just too high. The cost of watching rugby league has never been greater.
The Football Supporters Federation have campaigned for cheaper ticketing options for some time with its Twenty’s Plenty campaign, capping admission at no more than £20 for an adult – and clubs are now beginning to adapt accordingly. By doing the same in rugby league, fans can begin to have affordable access to live sport again, at a time when more spectators are turning away than ever before.
Remove the power from the clubs
A fresh start for rugby league starts from the very top.
For too long, the sport’s leading clubs have held way too much power in the game. That was mercilessly underlined by the Toronto Wolfpack debacle last year. Whatever you think about the Canadian club, the fact it was their rivals who decided their fate just didn’t seem right.
With strong leadership above the clubs, there is no need for the chairman and chief executives of Super League to have such a strong, almost unbiased, say in matters like the future of clubs. It’s a tough ask to convince clubs, but if they genuinely believe in the greater good, you’d hope they’d be willing to do what is right for the wider growth of the game.
And speaking of which..
Put a new, independent commission in control of governance
Rugby league is bereft of clear, competent leadership at the top of the sport.
There is a distinct feeling of jobs for the boys at boardroom level, and has been for some time. The only genuine way to have a clean break and restore faith in the direction of travel rugby is heading is to have an independent commission running the sport.
It is a point made brilliantly by Richardson in his paper. As he says, it is vital rugby league looks to the future and ditches vested interest and historical viewpoints. It is time to look forward, not back. Only with an independent commission making the vital decisions on the sport objectively and without bias can there be any semblance of transparency supporters can trust.
The man to head that up is simple: World Cup chief executive Jon Dutton. A well-spoken, well-respected and decisive figurehead who would almost certainly have universal support. Rugby league lost Sally Bolton in the aftermath of the 2013 World Cup. It cannot afford to do the same again with Dutton.
Make stars of the players
Easier said than done, yes, but not an impossible feat.
While professional sports stars are often defined by what they do on the field of play, it is their human side which can also prove to be endearing and appealing for members of the public. Jonny Lomax underwent emergency brain surgery as a child and is now a star for club and country. Mikolaj Oledzki’s family came from Poland to provide a better life for their children.
There are countless other examples across Super League. These stories are waiting to be told, and while it relies on the media to tell them, it also rests with the clubs to share them. Too often, journalists have found themselves frustrated with a lack of access from some – but not all, for the record – clubs.
If we want our players to be put on a pedestal, which they undoubtedly deserve to be, they have to be opened up to the world. New media and digital media platforms want stories. They want viral clips and things that will generate clicks. If we as a sport find a way to do that, the opportunities are endless for rugby league to bring itself in front of a new audience.
Create rivalries and stories off the field
Almost every sport on the planet falls behind football in terms of creating headlines and rivalries – but rugby league in particular always seems to flatter to deceive.
To gain cut-through and traction in the media, and get more eyes and ears on rugby league, there has to be a targeted approach in terms of manufacturing rivalries, drama and storylines beyond the pitch. Yes, rugby league delivers a product almost unlike any other when the players step onto the field, but you need to drive people to the games in order for them to see that product.
Clearly our players and coaches have immense respect for one another, but we need to look beyond that, like football does. Jose Mourinho had a managerial rivalry with the likes of Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger that was born out of media narrative, yet it dominated headlines for days leading into a big game between any of their sides. Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have the same.
Super League was almost onto a winner with the Jake Connor v Zak Hardaker battle, but that dissipated quickly. Shaun Wane was a master in drumming up interest ahead of a big Wigan v St Helens game by holding nothing back about how much he disliked the Saints. Sam Tomkins found himself all across the mainstream media when he arrived on the scene due to his swagger and willingness to make himself a figure of hate on the terraces. Connor does the same.
Imagine a Hull FC player publicly admitting in the run-up to a derby that he wants to make Hull KR fans cry live on television. Or Daryl Powell and Kristian Woolf insisting they have little admiration for the style of play each others’ sides possess, with Woolf subtly digging that it’s about trophies, not pizzazz. The more people we can get putting their head above the parapet and creating manufactured rivalries, the more Super League will flourish in the wider world.
Pick a structure – and commit to it for good
The Super 8s. Licensing. One up, one down.
Just thinking about the amount of structural changes rugby league has gone through in recent times is enough to make your head spin. Yes, you could argue that innovation is a good thing, but how many other sports have ripped its structure up time after time?
The league structure is arguably the biggest reason why 2022 is a landmark moment for rugby league. Everyone will have their ideas about which structure is best, but no matter what is decided upon next, there simply has to be a commitment that long-term, things won’t change again. No structure can ever feel settled if it’s constantly being discussed as up for change.
Ideally, rugby league would find a way to get to two strong divisions and settle on it. Whether that’s two leagues of ten, twelve or fourteen is completely up to the powers that be. But simplicity with the structure is key; no nonsensical gimmicks, just good, old-fashioned promotion and relegation between Super League and the second division.
And one other thing: there are too many games being played as it is. Any revamped structure has to include a shorter season. Not only would that reduce the demand on the players, but it would make big, box office games feel like they’re worth watching if they only come around once or twice a season.
Reduce the number of teams: but by cutting the heartlands
The financial pie rugby league has access to each and every year is shrinking.
That means one of two things is an inevitability: less teams have access to a slice of the pie, or the slice each club gets reduces. If we want our leading clubs to retain their top talent and prevent a player drain to rugby union and the NRL, then reducing the size of the pie they get, and in turn, reducing the amount clubs can offer players like Harry Newman, Daryl Clark and Morgan Knowles, makes no sense whatsoever.
There are, simply put, too many clubs in professional rugby league for the size of the pie. That has been true for some time, and it will be a point reinforced even harder in 2022 when the money drops once again.
But losing expansion clubs is not the way forward. The heartlands, unfortunately, are too saturated given the state the game finds itself in financially. With growing appetite for two-division structure – meaning a maximum of 28 clubs – rugby league will have no choice but to lose some professional sides.
It is an invidious position, and one nobody in the sport wants to consider. But if our game is to prosper, then there are tough decisions which will need to be made. One of those is telling some professional clubs there simply isn’t room for the game to hold them up any longer.
Once and for all, believe in expansion
Fans of a certain age will remember the Framing The Future report, published 100 years after rugby league’s birth in 1995. It declared that too many professional teams were fishing in too small a pool for talent and audiences. The same is harrowingly true 26 years on from that report.
Is every expansion club worth persisting with? Probably not. History has shown us that mistakes have been made. But we, as a sport, have such potential to grow naturally and carefully out of our heartlands. Newcastle Thunder and York City Knights are by far and away the two clearest examples of that; they are two clubs which could easily be part of a more vibrant, geographically-diverse Super League in years to come.
But there is more. Coventry Bears do wonderful work and, slowly but surely, we are starting to see the fruits of their labour in League 1, underlined by the scalps of heartlands clubs they have taken this season. London forever remains a beacon of opportunity with the right attitude – their talent production line proves that. Richardson was right that for rugby league in the UK to grow, it needs to adopt a more progressive and expansive approach at the top, and the inclusion of clubs like Newcastle and York in a newly-revamped Super League would be refreshing and open up new opportunities for the game.
The parochial approach to expansion in so many corners of the sport is what frustrates people more than anything else. Our heartlands are something we should shout from the rooftops about – but confining ourselves to the M62 and nothing else will see rugby league wilt and, eventually, die out. It’s time to embrace expansion.
Modernise with a shorter-format version
One of rugby league’s great mysteries is why it has never embraced a shorter, more dynamic version of the game.
Nines seemed to have all the potential in the world, with the very nature of rugby league’s premiere athletes seemingly making them a perfect fit for a quick, short version of a sport that already delivers unparalleled entertainment. But the emergence of The Hundred in cricket has reinforced the appetite for short-burst sport to attract new audiences.
The Hundred is controversial to traditional cricket fans, just like any shorter-format rugby league would be here: particularly if it took up a portion of the calendar. But new audiences are catching on to cricket, and in a world where our attention spans are shorter than ever before, just imagine how popular Nines – or even something slightly tweaked – could be if it were shown on free-to-air TV?
Traditional rugby league will always have its place. That is not in doubt. But there is nothing wrong with investing in a shorter format to run neatly alongside the real thing. It could open the sport up to new audiences like never before.
Embrace an events culture
Run-of-the-mill weekly fixtures become boring after around seven or eight weeks of the season. They’re even more mundane when you see a Hull derby or a Wigan-St Helens blockbuster five, or even six, times a season.
So rugby league has to embrace the modern events culture to keep supporters, sponsors and broadcasters interested. The NRL, for all their sins in terms of their feelings towards the international game, do this brilliantly. Why can’t Super League have a Women in League round, and put the women’s games on as double-headers alongside the men?
Or a retro round, where clubs bring out limited, one-off shirts honouring their history and play in them? Magic Weekend is Super League’s biggest success in history without question, and it’s so popular because it’s a major event that transcends what happens on the field. Book bands – and not tribute acts, meaningful, legitimate acts who people want to see. All of a sudden, your average man on the street is able to take his family to the game, because there’s something for them. Throw in street food festivals and so much more. Clubs like Warrington already do this well, but there is so much more room for improvement across the game.
Make rugby league more than the 80 minutes you see on the field every single week. For die-hard supporters, that won’t mean too much. But we need to shake this feeling that the sport is all about the people who watch it and enjoy it now. We desperately need new supporters. Younger supporters. A more diverse fanbase to build upon. Making big events of our big games could make all the difference.
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