“In Lancashire, babies don’t toddle, they side-step. Queuing women talk of ‘nipping round the blindside’. Rugby league provides our cultural adrenalin. It’s a physical manifestation of our rules of life, comradeship, honest endeavour, and a staunch, often ponderous allegiance to fair play.”
The quote from Oscar-winning writer Colin Welland has been repeated amongst Rugby League circles for decades. But little of his statement rings true of the sport today. Attendances have stagnated, participation is at an all time low and the players have lost some of the ‘honest endeavour’ that once identified them as the toughest on the planet. Even Lancashire is Greater Manchester and Merseyside now.
In the last ten years Rugby League has failed to adapt to the ever-changing social, cultural, economic and media landscape. Some are ambivalent to this. The new chairman of the RFL, Ralph Rimmer, claims “the game is in a good place”. But that reeks of complacency. Over the next seven weeks, 8 top-tier sides will play 28 meaningless fixtures that could financial cripple the sport. We will then see two sets of teams play each other for the fourth time in 8 months in a half-empty stadium to decide who makes it to the Grand Final. The winner is then likely to come from Wigan or St Helens. It usually does.
Change is afoot though. After a decade in the wilderness, the Super League clubs have taken direct action. The appointment of Robert Elstone – the former Everton chief with impeccable League credentials – as their own Chief Executive, has the potential to revolutionise the game again. He has no time to waste in connecting the sport with a new generation of supporters. Here are twelve ways he could do it:
1: League Structure
Problem: Since 1998 only four teams – Wigan, St Helens, Bradford and Leeds – have won the Super League. The play-off system intended to create more winners has had the opposite effect. Smaller clubs such as Huddersfield, Warrington and Castleford have proved themselves to be the best side over a season, but ended up trophyless at the end. It massively devalues the weekly fixtures. To rectify this the RFL introduced a longer play-off system called the Super 8’s. Heralded as ‘every minute matters’, it has proved to be anything but. In the three years since its introduction only one side – St Helens – have pushed their way into the Top 4 during the arduous and lengthy qualifiers. Worse still, it has proved a loss-maker for the clubs. In 2015 Castleford lost £100,000 due to the format whilst Wigan lost £605,000 in 2017.
Solution: Despite the play-off flaws, League cannot afford to return to a first-past-the-post competition. The Premier League can generate battles when a side – as Manchester City did last year – runs away with the title; the race for Champions League, Europa League and relegation, which maintain interest for more than half the teams in a division. League could do the same if it reverts back to a twelve team competition with a top five play-off system and one team relegated/promoted each season. The initial top five system the sport used from 1998-2001 remains the most fair:
- Qualification Final: 2nd vs 3rd
- Elimination Final: 4th vs 5th
- Bye: 1st
- Major Semi Final: 1st vs Winners of Qualification Final
- Minor Semi Final: Losers of Qualification Final vs Winners of Elimination Final
- Preliminary Final: Losers of Major Semi Final vs Winners of Minor Semi Final
- Bye: Winners of Major Semi Final
- Grand Final: Winners of Major Semi Final vs Winners of Preliminary Final
This system adds greater value to the regular season fixtures and the chances of winning the competition gradually increase the higher up you finish.
Problem: Rugby League’s last great revolution came in 1994, when it proposed mergers to rectify the ‘downcast’ image of the sport. A newspaper article from the period declared:
“THE GAME is facing its hardest decisions and most radical structural changes in nearly 100 years following yesterday’s unveiling of a far-reaching report. The report, ‘Framing the Future’, drawn up by independent consultants, says that there are too many professional clubs chasing too small and too geographically narrow a market and that too many fail to provide the facilities necessary to compete with other forms of entertainment.”
Twenty four years on and we have reached the same position. If anything the sport has contracted. We no longer have a top-flight presence in Cumbria, Sheffield and Bradford, who – as areas – have grown economically since the 1990s. The game has maximised its potential in the heartlands too. Salford, Widnes and Wakefield enjoyed relative success in 2017 but still averaged less than 6000 in attendances. When Featherstone hosted Hull in a ‘glamour’ Challenge Cup tie this year just 2,322 attended. There is no room in a top-flight competition for teams with such little reach.
Solution: An ‘ideal’ Super League would be composed of a mixture of the heartland and expansionist clubs, with twelve in the top-tier and at least six clubs challenging:
The Big Six: Wigan; St Helens; Leeds Rhinos; Hull FC; Warrington Wolves; Bradford,
Expansionist clubs: London Broncos, Catalan Dragons, Toronto Wolfpack, Newcastle Thunder or Coventry Bears
New Mergers: Manchester (a combination of Salford, Swinton and Oldham) and Cumbria (a combination of Barrow, Whitehaven and Workington)
Tier-Two Clubs: Widnes Vikings, Huddersfield Giants, Wakefield Trinity, Castleford Tigers, Leigh Centurions, Hull KR.
Newcastle and Coventry are potential growth areas and should be exempt from relegation for the first three years when entering the top competition as the Catalan Dragons were. Despite hosting the Grand Final and the RFL moving their headquarters to Manchester, the sport is still under-developed in the area. A re-branding of Salford would align the game with an ever-growing vibrant brand and city.
3: Attendance Decline
Problem: Familiarity breeds contempt. Since the turn of the decade, Wigan and St Helens have played each other 29 times – with the potential for another two before this season is over. The public have lost interest. Just two weeks ago Wigan and St Helens – who sit as top and second in the Super League – attracted a lowly crowd of just 16,047. It is the lowest for a regular Wigan home fixture against the Saints in fifteen years. Ten years ago, Wigan attracted two crowds of 24,208 and 22,301 for the same fixture. While attendances remain higher than the inaugural Super League season, there has been little if any sustained growth since 2003, when the average attendance reached 8,000 for the first time.
Solution: Rather than expand the number of games, the season should be reduced to regular home and away fixtures. In a twelve team competition, this would mean 22 rounds, which is just one less than the NRL. This would allow the two competitions to align their schedule and develop an international window in tandem. By playing each other less, the clubs could focus their marketing efforts on selling one fixture against the big sides. History shows us that clubs have it within them to increase their attendances; Bradford swelled from 6,731 in 1995 to 15,122 by 1997 and – over a longer period – Leeds grew from 8,581 in 1996 to 15,740 by 2004.
4: Sky Is Our Limit
Problem: Sky Sports revolutionised the sport when they began Big League coverage in 1991. The iconic duo of Eddie and Stevo transcended the sport, best exemplified in their Wide to West commentary, which remains unrivalled in terms of drama. Fast forward to 2018 and the viewers are treated to the unedifying spectacle of Eddie Hemmings, Phil Clarke, Terry O’Connor, Barrie McDermott, and Stuart Cummings squabbling for airtime. It has fostered a hostile nit-picking environment between the group, where each comment is questioned, disputed and dismissed. The attempt to generate ‘banter’ between Barry and Terry leads to crude northern stereotypes, bordering on contempt for the audience. The over-indulgence of the forward play conforms to the growing-belief that League is a dull, one-dimensional game played by ‘meatheads’.
Solution: Strip the commentary down to just two – preferably Eddie Hemmings and John Wells. Over time Super League and Sky Sports should train a new generation of pundits – such as John Wilkin – to set the agenda with ‘controversial’ views each week. In the NRL it is the key pundits Andrew Johns, Gus Gould, Brad Fittler etc who generate news stories in the week, as they are not afraid to criticise the sport, coaches or players. Perhaps the Sky pundits remain close to the teams; Barrie McDermott worked with the Leeds academy; Terry O Connor at Widnes as Director of Rugby; John Wells as Castleford’s Director and Phil Clarke’s brother is a key player agent. Criminally, apart from Barrie, the pundits have no social media presence. They should take a greater role in setting a platform for debate and discussion each week.
Plan for coverage:
Pre Match: Brian Carney and John Wells
Main Commentator: Eddie Hemmings/Bill Arthur
Summariser: Jon Wilkin/Brian Noble/John Wells
Guest Sideline Summarisers: Coaches, Players, Ex-Players, Referees, Journalists.
5: Promote From The Top
Problem: There is a lack of direction from the top of the game. Nigel Wood’s era saw the sport tinkering with schemes to arrest the decline: Stobart Buses, Franchising, the Exiles, ClubCall and Super 8s. All have been a failure. Wood has left with a £300,000 goodbye package, which – in the same year the sport lost £2million – generated much anger from fans. The Chairman Brian Barwick, who arrived in the sport with a Filofax full of contacts, hasn’t dusted it off in a while. In Wood’s place at the RFL comes Ralph Rimmer who remains resolute: “we’re in a good place as the game goes.” Early signs show his communication skills are still a concern. After last weeks successful Challenge Cup Semi Final double-header, Rimmer claimed “we will do a review…I’m sure it looked good on TV…it ticked all the boxes”. It is not a communication style to sell our sport in the modern media age. A generic press release will no longer cut it.
Solution: The RFL need an administrator to champion the sport in the media. Leeds’ Kevin Sinfield is now a Director and worked his way onto the BBC for the Royal Wedding. But he pales into insignificance when compared to promoters such as Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn, who has acquired 650,000 followers on Twitter. Maurice Lindsay – the man who spearheaded League’s professional era – recently claimed “no-one turns up to watch administrators”. Yet he does himself a great disservice. In Time Of Our Lives, Ellery Hanley, Shaun Edwards and Martin Offiah all cited Lindsay as the catalyst for the growth of their careers. Hanley lauded Lindsay’s “foresight” and vision of professionalism. If Twitter had been around in the 1980s, you can guarantee Maurice Lindsay would have been promoting the sport in the same way Hearn does Boxing today.
6: Build Up The ‘Box Office’ Fixtures
Problem: League does itself few favours with a multitude of fixtures played on the same day. This week we see all 8 Super League teams playing on a Friday night, in direct competition with each other. The clashes ensure that the sport has a short window to engage with the media. From Saturday through to the following Thursday we have no games from the top-flight to promote.
Solution: In Australia’s NRL no two fixtures occur at the same time due to the TV deal in place to show every fixture live. Super League is decades off securing such a deal. To grow the sport we should focus on promotion of the weekly TV ‘box office’ games. This means structuring the fixtures; Thursday (A Local Derby on Sky); Friday (Sky); Saturday (An RFL online-Streamed Fixture) with the other three fixtures taking place on Sunday. Clubs should proactively work together to promote the Sky fixtures and encourage their own supporters to watch. Why not have Ben Barba take over the St Helens twitter feed to offer an analysis of Wigan v Castleford? It could generate stories, foster rivalry and draw attention to the big fixture on Sky Sports. By avoiding a clash with one another the viewing figures should increase and fans will have the option of watching their own side live. The sport is nowhere near big enough to compete with each other for audience numbers.
7: Move the Challenge Cup to March
Problem: The sports most famous trophy – the Challenge Cup – is in big trouble. Last seasons final between Wigan and Hull attracted just 68,000 people – and in previous years figures were masked by the inclusion of Club Wembley tickets that have always remained empty. It is expected to be much lower again this year. The introduction of the play-offs in 1998 ensured its decline, as the regular season became the premier knock-out competition at the expense of the Cup. This year, Wakefield rested players for a winnable Quarter Final in order to maximise their chances of a Top 4 place. It is also much harder for teams to go on a ‘cup-run’ as the competition now spans four months of fixtures. The RFL moved the final to August, but it remains in an awkward position, clashing with the Super League season and a busy bank-holiday weekend of music festivals.
Solution: Move the Challenge Cup to winter and run it as a pre-season tournament before the Super League begins. Running from January to March – when fixtures are sparse – it would be a reversion to the traditional winter game and could be marketed as a heritage competition. The winter conditions would enhance the prospects of an upset. Fans craving their fix would be more inclined to attend – as Leeds and Wakefield showed this year when their winter friendly attracted 9,000 supporters. The chance to watch new signings could enhance this further. Imagine Blake Austin making his Warrington debut in a Challenge Cup tie at Wigan next year? Or Shaun Edwards making his coaching debut in 2020? With a March final the sport can start and end the season in spectacular fashion. In a bold move, the RFL should look to take the final to a different venue each year to raise the profile of the sport in new areas. Wembley no longer holds the allure it once did.
8: Broadcast Deal
Problem: Robert Elstone has admitted that negotiating the next broadcasting deal is the most important task he faces. The sport is currently tied to a deal that looks outdated to the changes in streaming, mobile and subscription models. In the Art Of The Deal, Donald Trump wrote about pouncing on your opponents weaknesses in any negotiation. Sky Sports succeeded in doing so when they offered to put £300,000 in each clubs bank account within two weeks of signing the last agreement in 2013. Yet there were warning signs from the off. Wigan’s Ian Lenagan admitted at the time: “you do not commit to a single broadcaster for a period of eight years at a time when there are other players in the field”. It means that Sky own the rights to all live games, even though they choose not to show most of them.
Solution: Having a broadcast deal exclusively with Pay-TV prevents the sport from reaching the majority of the population. Research by Ampere Analysis found that 18 to 24-year-olds are 17% less likely to watch sport than older people. The price of a Sky subscription being the biggest factor. Nevertheless, without Sky Sports the game cannot survive. Although the new deal will be worth less, the game could offset losses by offering stand-alone fixtures and highlight packages to new broadcasters each week – be it Facebook, RLeague, Netflix or Amazon. Its purpose should be to grow the game to a younger audience. There has been an explosion of good quality ‘alternative’ media in the game, with Proper Sport leading the way. We need to have a range of products to suit each one.
9: Manufacture Rivalry Between Players and Coaches
Problem: The players no longer foster intense rivalry between each other. One of the most viewed League videos on YouTube is a fight between Andy Farrell and Paul Sculthorpe in 2004 at Knowsley Road. This was the culmination of a duel between the two men that had been built up over seasons. In the pubs of Wigan and St Helens the debate over who was better would rage for hours; Wellens v Radlinksi; Connolly v Newlove; Dallas v Albert; Cunningham v Newton and on and on it went. We no longer do the same for Barba v Tomkins; Williams v Richardson; Gildart v Percival.
Solution: Train and support the players to create ‘faux’ rivalry in the run-up to the big fixtures. Hull’s Jake Connor has been criticised by his coach – all be it tongue in cheek – for being: “just a horrible man, who is giving our team a reputation for being grubs and who can start a fight when there is no need to start a fight but he can play.” But it is exactly the sort of ‘trash-talk’ that could generate much-needed headlines. When Sam Tomkins burst onto the scene in 2009, he had confidence that turned him into a hate-figure. It also gave him a high enough profile to turn out for the Barbarians and feature on shows such as Soccer AM and a Question of Sport.
10: Make Each Round An ‘Event’
Problem: The advent of Super League came with the Americanization of the game; pre-match entertainment, mascots and cheerleaders. It was the Bradford Bulls who set the standard, creating ‘Bull-Mania’ and increasing their attendances from 4,500 to 17,000 in just three years. Sky Sports took an active role in encouraging new fans to attend the events. Eddie and Stevo told viewers in 1996: “Don’t forget . . . There’s nothing like being there at Super League, if you haven’t tried it before why not pay a visit to your local ground this weekend”. The pre-match build up would see the pair visit family attractions to accompany a fans big day out. It is how Stevo was famously bitten by an ostrich at Knowsley Safari Park.
Solution: Just fans tire of the same teams playing each other, the marketing of each round remains the same. This is in stark contrast to the NRL which has an Indigenous Round, Women In League Round, ANZAC Weekend and Retro Round. The Super League should market each round in a similar way to generate a feel-good atmosphere. Working with good social causes such as homelessness, LGBT rights and mental health would attract a young audience, who want to identify with brands that are socially aware. It could be supported by documentaries, articles and events based around the cause with players offering a personal insight into their lives.
11: Unite and Create Superstars
Problem: It has become a Rugby League cliché but it’s worth repeating. League’s household names are still Ellery Hanley, Martin Offiah, Jonathan Davies, Shaun Edwards and Jason Robinson. Of greater concern is the lack of household names at a local level. The players are no longer as marketable, as clubs have actively suppressed the personalities of the players in recent years. Maurice Lindsay recently claimed that clubs are wary of building stars because they are “scared of getting turned over by the Sundays” – but all publicity should be seen as good for our game.
Solution: We have great stories to tell – from Jonny Lomax’s near death experience as a teenager to Keegan Hirst ‘coming out’ as a gay sports star. But we are increasingly telling it to the same audience. League players no longer feature in mens magazines and Sunday supplements. Modern media outlets such as Vice, Buzzfeed and Vox wouldn’t touch our sport. But with the right marketing it is possible. One just needs to look at how England players like Sam Burgess and James Graham have become minor-celebrities in Sydney – working as pundits on the magazine show NRL 360 – to show that it can be done. The sport should identify three key players – starting with St Helens wonderkid Danny Richardson – and turn them into brands over the next decade. They should be at the forefront of everything we market as a sport.
12: Reduce Technology Use
Problem: The introduction of the video referee to League in 1996 was seen as a truly radical act. Since then, most sports have followed suit with their own interpretations. But it’s having an increasingly negative impact. It is now impossible to imagine a try such as Chris Joynt’s ‘Wide to West’ or Radlinski’s Pinched It not being referred up to find an issue with obstruction, offside or a knock-on. Doing so destroys much of the magic about a try. Ultimately, the sport is not perfect. If you look closely enough you will always be able to find an obstruction or a slight bobble.
Solution: The RFL should scrap the video referee. It is not used in every match and there is not the same problem at the non-televised fixtures. In order for it to succeed, Sky Sports commentators would need to stop debating whether a decision is right and accept that referees can make mistakes. It would have the effect of speeding the game up and making it easier to watch. The alternative is to put further pressure on referees – as is happening in Australia – where the top referee is retiring due to death threats on his family.
Framing The Future?
The objective for the sport over the next few years is simple: modernise or die. The Super League clubs of the future should be judged – above all – on their ability and potential to develop new markets, revenue and supporters. Young people in our heartlands now have access to top-level sport from across the world at the touch of their fingertip. Traditional loyalties of class, culture and place no longer apply. England’s Wayne Bennett – arguably the greatest League coach of all-time – recognises that: ““If we don’t have a global sport we are not going to have rugby league in 15 years”. But first we must grow the profile in our own backyard. The current leadership has been relaxed for too long. As another newspaper – The Times – drops its League coverage, we can expect more broadcasters to follow suit if we do not compete in the market for the world’s eyeballs. It is time to drag the sport kicking and screaming into the new digital age. Robert Elstone needs our support to do it. I wish him well.