Managed Decline: Will Labour and Rugby League break with their Heartlands?

It’s an inconvenient truth that Rugby League is at a major crossroads in its history. At the same time the Labour Party must confront its traditional voters over Brexit. As League looks to new markets in Toronto, Boston and New York, Labour is increasingly reliant on its inner city activist base to win the next election. Are they in danger of leaving their heartlands behind?

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Wigan’s Central Park in League’s Golden Era

With the Votes of the Rugby Crowds

In 1945, the prospective Chancellor Hugh Dalton, confided to a friend that Labour could only ever win power ‘with the votes of the football crowds’. Dalton recognised that for working class people, the bond of the terrace and what that signified, was far stronger than a political and ideological class consciousness. Since 1945, the ‘football crowds’ have rapidly changed demographically.  As the average worker is priced out of attending top flight games, clubs no longer represent a town, a workforce or a political class, but a large multi national corporation. Rugby League however remains deeply rooted within the culture of post-industrial towns. If Labour are to gain power at the next election, Jeremy Corbyn must keep and expand on ‘the votes of the rugby league crowds’ who still represent the party’s heartland.

Rugby League’s premier competition, the Super League enters its 23rd season tonight with virtually no fanfare. Deprived of column inches and a national media presence, the sport has wandered aimlessly through a ‘Winter of Discontent’ where a breakaway of the top clubs has failed to materialise. The sport has problems in the present; no leadership, no clear purpose for the season, a decline in big overseas stars and problems on the horizon; dwindling amateur participation, no reserve league and a Sky Sports deal that is soon to be renewed and presumably drastically reduced.

The fact that Martin Offiah remains League’s only household name outside of the north, even though he retired 16 years ago, shows how far the sport has stagnated in recent years. Commercially, League has long been surpassed by that ‘other’ Rugby code. If Union is now the sport of the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’, League is playing to the ‘left behind’s’ – a group misunderstood by a distant London media, too readily patronised for living off former glories.

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Superstar Martin Offiah remains the biggest name, but he retired in 2001…

The clamour for radical change has not been lost on the League public. Of the current English clubs, 30 reside in areas that voted to Leave the EU; Doncaster (69%) Hull (68 %), Wigan (64 %) Whitehaven (62%) St Helens (58%) and Warrington (54%). The Remain cities  (Leeds, London, Oxford and York) represent a minority within the sport. League is not averse to kicking the established orthodoxy, and is itself a product of a rebellion against the elites. In 1895 League and Union split, after the northern sides demanded ‘broken-time’ payments for missing work to play. The northern manual workers needed the extra money whilst the southern managerial class did not.

Over the next century, League, like the Labour Party, grew strong on the back of working class people in the now Brexit heartlands. It was the industrial powerhouses that emerged after the Victorian era; in the coal fields and textile plants of Lancashire and Yorkshire, the weapon and shipbuilders in Cumbria, the docks by Hull, the chemical plants in Widnes and world-famous glass manufacturing of St Helens, that formed the bedrock of the sport. The fans and teams were products of the sweat and toil around them.

What fuelled the growth of League was the thriving economy within the towns, as people chose to partake in sport as leisure away from the workplace. The peak of the League’s popularity remains the 1959 derby match between Wigan and St Helens, which drew 47,747 into Central Park – a record crowd for a regular season League fixture in Britain. Now the Super League teams cannot survive on gate money alone. Since 2010, the traditional heartlands have borne the biggest brunt of the austerity measures with insecure work replacing the high skilled, high waged jobs of yesteryear.  As the jobs left, so did the wealth.

Super League clubs are now isolated from the Blue Chip companies that have proven to be so lucrative in other sports. Union can now boast of sponsorship money from Heineken, RBS, BT, O2, Samsung and BMW, while League has had to settle for Heinz Big Soup, Foxy Bingo, and Bachelors Mushy Peas. The big kit makers Adidas, Nike and Umbro have all fallen away too. League is now reliant on betting companies to fund the sport, with Betfred and Ladbrokes sponsoring each division, the national team and the Challenge Cup. Each club also has their own official betting partner. It’s a far cry from 2012, when the game took a ‘principled stand’ and decided to reject an offer from Betfair to sponsor the league in order to let Stobart promote the game for free ‘ethically’.

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Mushy Peas presence within Rugby League feeds the stereotypical view of the game. Unfortunately no major brands are interested.

That Betfred and Ladbrokes hold such a presence within the sport is symbolic of the social change that has occurred within working class communities since the League’s 1960s heyday. A report published in 2014 revealed that “betting shops are more likely to be located in areas of high deprivation” and the report confirmed that payday loan shops are directly linked to the rise in problem gambling in the areas. If Labour win the next election, an overdue clamp down on the big gambling firms is expected – with a levy on profits, minimum FOBT stakes and a ban on advertising. The latter could kill off the sport for good.

Wigan Warriors, still the biggest name in the British game, are now starved of lucrative sponsorship within the existing structure and are doing more than most to try to attract new investors Next month, the club will take one of its home fixtures on the road to Sydney, Australia. The club have described the move as the ‘biggest single commercial deal in the club’s history’ and believe it could open up new markets abroad. After the game has been played, the debate will begin between the expansionists and the traditionalists, as to whether the sport is ready to open up to the rest of the world.

New ground has already been broken with the Canadian outfit Toronto Wolfpack who now ply their trade in the British competition. Toronto believe they can convert some of the 6m people in the city to the sport. In their first season, they attracted 7,000 fans on average, and are already one of the best supported clubs in the game. The sport cannot turn its back on the new markets. Previously, attempts to expand the sport have ended in failure, particularly in London, West Wales and the Midlands, were football is rooted deep within the culture. Back In 1994, a radical proposal looked to retain support within the heartlands, but expand capacity by merging clubs. So rather than have Widnes and Warrington vying for support in Cheshire, the two clubs were to merge – creating bigger and better organisations. Yet the history of rivalry runs deep and protest ensured that the mergers never happened.

Brave New World

When the Super League was finally introduced in 1996, bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports, the future for League seemed bright, exciting and above all radical. It coincided with the revival of a Labour Party under Tony Blair who distanced his support base from the class battles of the past. It was New Labour, New Britain. League had the ultimate makeover, moving from the dark Winter days to beautiful Summer nights. Bradford became the big success story of the era as the teams adopted NFL style names such as Bulls, Rhinos and Warriors. 22 years later and the season begins and ends in Winter conditions, it can no longer rely on Sky Sports to promote the sport and Bradford languish in the third division.

Initially Sky Sports were lauded as the saviour of the game. A huge cash stimulus coincided with revolutionary new technology, such as the Video Referee. The commentary pair of ‘Eddie and Stevo’ hyped the game to the rafters, best exemplified in the iconic ‘Wide to West’ commentary which will outlive us all. In 2018, the production is in drastic need of a relaunch. Like a stale marriage, League remains on Sky Sports because it has nowhere else to go. The passion has gone and the chemistry doesn’t feel right. Listening to the commentary last season was like listing to an unsuited couple argue about the most trivial of matters, anything to avoid talking about the real issues. The faux banter and occasional passive aggression within the box is palpable.

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The banal comedy duo ‘Baz n Tez’ are setting League back decades with their caricature of Northerners. Sky have long shown contempt for their audience.

It is a measure of the contempt Sky Sports now hold the northern viewership in, that the banal comedy duo of ‘Baz n Tez’ have been pushed to the centre stage. The extent of their analysis is a Cannon and Ball esuqe routine, involving shouts of ‘SHOT’ when a big tackle is made, an endless focus on teams ‘ripping in’/fronting up/’getting stuck in and jokes by Tez about Baz’s wife. If the BBC’s Mrs Browns Boys represents the dumbing down of working class comedy,  ‘Baz n Tez’ are the commentating equivalent. Fans are increasingly turning away from Sky Sports to local radio, were shows such as RLonRY offer a varied and constructive opinion on the state of game.

It isn’t the first time that fans of the sport have accused broadcasters of patronising them. In the 1960s Eddie Waring, the iconic League commentator, became a national treasure after appearing in the Morecambe and Wise Christmas special. Yet the audience were laughing at Waring rather than with him. For League fans, when outsiders laughed at Waring, they laughed at their sport, their town and their culture. In 1971, the sport brought in marketing consultants to asses the image of the game as it reached its nadir. They concluded that Waring’s coverage ‘was totally detrimental to the life of the game.’ When 11,000 supporters petitioned for his sacking, they were ignored. It only added to a scepticism that the fans were misunderstood by the broadcasters.

The period of the early 1970s marked the last big crisis for Rugby League. In 1973 – the most volatile year politically since the 1930s, Great Britain played Australia at Wembley with less than 10,000 people in attendance. The League historian, Tony Collins, argues that demographically, people had already began to leave the small towns for the cities. League was still admired for its toughness and honesty, epitomised in the 1963 film, This Sporting Life, which should have gone on to become the British Raging Bull. However, it flopped at the box office. Although Richard Harris won Best Actor at Cannes for his portrayal of Frank Machin, a miner who becomes a League star, the public had grown weary of the ‘kitchen sink drama’. With it marked an end to a decade of cultural romanticism with working class life and League, as it so often does, had missed the boat.

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Harris portrayal of the Miner turned League star won awards, but the public had already tired of the ‘kitchen sink drama’

Nevertheless the sport came through the period, and remained progressive on the field. In 1972, as the National Front rose and began to infiltrate working class culture, Great Britain RL made Clive Sullivan the first black captain of a British national side. In 1995, Ikram Butt became the first Muslim to play for England in any sport when he appeared in a game against Wales, while tough Aussie Ian Roberts became the first openly gay sports player without hype or bluster. Today, the sport has a dedicated ‘State of Mind’ round to promote mental health after the sad death of Terry Newton in 2010.

For a sport rooted in the working class communities, the players are still lagging behind in terms of Trade Union representation. Numerous attempts, in 1920, 1950, 1981 and 2012 to make an impact ended in modest failure. With a sense of revolution in the air, another overdue attempt has been made with the launch of the new @RLPA, where their first task will be an attempt to reduce the amount of fixtures and finally introduce a minimum wage for players. It would amaze readers to learn that some of the Super League youngsters will earn less than £20,000 this year for their herculean efforts on the field.

On Its Knees

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Rugby league should be biting off Eddie Hearn’s hand, but like the Brexit negotiations, the RFL don’t know what they want.

For a sport characterised by its virtue, toughness and honesty on the pitch, there is a complete lack of transparency off the field. There is a splintering between the clubs, the governing body and the fans. As it emerged this week that the much derided Nigel Wood, (the outgoing League chief executive who has overseen the sports big decline), received a payout of £500,000, the game’s establishment must react to the call for change. Change is on its way, whether the established order accept it or not. It could come in the form of Eddie Hearn, the charismatic Boxing promoter who claims League is a “big and powerful” sport, but that it’s “on its knees.”

An outsider, not rooted in the class struggles of the past, Hearn would be a bold and welcome edition to the game, but he is part of the self-styled ‘London Elite’ so despised by the traditionalist fans within the game. However, much like the Brexit negotiations, the sport doesn’t have a clear objective for discussions with Hearn. The Challenge Cup would be a perfect opportunity to test some of Hearn’s methods. The Cup no longer holds any prominence within the wider sporting calendar, tucked away at the busiest bank holiday of the year. The annual pilgrimage of the working mens clubs and amateur clubs down to Wembley has dwindled and the competition needs a relaunch if it is to survive another century.

The Brexit vote itself was a culmination of decades of resentment to feelings of being ignored in a rapidly changing world. Yet pride in League remains deeper than the political ties that are changing so rapidly. The jobs may have left town, but the clubs remain in some form or another. The big Super League clubs now hope to take money away from the heartlands of Barrow, Batley, Featherstone and Keighley. By the end of the Brexit negotiations, Super League could have a new structure, new clubs and a much less lucrative TV deal. Those smaller clubs could fall by the wayside.

At the same time, Labour will have tightened its grip on its London power base and will have been forced to confront the issue of Brexit. With the party so heavily rooted in London (Corbyn, McDonnell, Starmer, Thornberry, and Abbott all sit as MPs there) it will be difficult to satisfy both the city and the industrial folk that have formed the bedrock of the party’s success through history.

The stakes are high for both the sport and the party as we enter a transition phase in Britain’s history. What emerges over the next thirty years will be forged in the next two. For both League and Labour’s sakes, the heartlands and the working class must have a voice in the New Britain. But they must also grow and evolve to fit the new urban landscape. Some people are going to be very disappointed along the way. Bring it on.

 

6 thoughts

  1. This is very interesting and very timely, and contains lots of fascinating nuggets. However, let’s be careful of making union the game of the liberal metropolitan elite. Gloucester is short of a liberal metropolitan elite and a vibrant working class union heritage, Bristol has lots of liberal metropolitan elites, but they tend to be downsizing Londoners and not often found amongst the rugby communities of Lockleaze and Avonmouth. Of course, there is also south Wales. All areas which have or in recent history returned Labour MPs, or been important to the Labour movement. The rugby code of the communities of Bevan and Bevin has always been union. But as I say, interesting piece.

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  2. I was fascinated by the implied criticism of RL that “now the Super League teams cannot survive on gate money alone”. I can’t think of any professional sport that doesn’t rely on TV broadcasting rights and sponsorship money to balance the books

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  3. There is one mistake in the article. 1960’s were not leagues best times; these were the 1940s and 1950s. I remember in the 1960s Bradford Northern playing with 300 spectators before going bust ..plus ca change but at least they now get healthier crowds. despite the fact that the super league clubs have too much power, let’s be positive and look forward to an exciting new season.

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  4. I think you erred where you state the sport has failed in West Wales.I think you may mean South Wales if you are referring to Bridgend,Ebbw Vale,Aberdare and Merthyr Tydfil,Treherbert et al.
    You are correct that the sport cannot turn its back on new markets.Stebonheath Park.Llanelli.West Wales – 18th February 2018 v Newcastle Thunder.

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