Rugby League Needs Saving: Radical Thinking is Required after Toronto Farce

Super League, rugby league’s flagship competition in Europe, is not in a strong position right now. After a year where no fans have been allowed in stadiums due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the competition has also been left with egg on its face over the situation surrounding Toronto Wolfpack and their expulsion from the competition.

While the details of the farce surrounding Toronto have been extensively covered elsewhere, a quote from one of the chairmen of the Super League clubs at Rugby League Long Reads caught the eye.

Speaking anonymously, this individual commented: “This whole process brings the Toronto farce into even greater focus – the clubs voted for who went out of the competition but not who comes in. They also voted to give the promoted side a reduced distribution beforehand and delay identification until now, thereby making it an absolute certainty that they will be uncompetitive and will be relegated. This is why we are finished as a credible sport.”

Leigh will replace Toronto

Leigh Centurions were selected as the club that will replace Toronto. The Lancashire club reportedly made a very strong case and it does seem like they deserved to go back up, especially given how strongly they have recruited for their squad in recent times. But there was still a lingering sense that the sport was thinking more of the short term than the long in making such a decision.

In addition to the sense that the sport is somehow heading backwards by promoting a heartland club over the likes of London or Toulouse, there was also news this week that the sport is facing a reduced TV deal from main broadcaster Sky.

League Express has reported that the broadcasting offer from Sky Sports will be around £20 million a year, a figure that is approximately half of the value of the current deal. As a proportion of that money goes to non-Super League clubs, the Super League clubs will be receiving around two thirds of their current revenue from TV broadcasting, should the offer be accepted.

That presents a serious problem for a sport that relies almost entirely on Sky for its revenue. No wonder then that Leigh, who are guaranteed to bring an away crowd with them that will spend money on beer and burgers, were the choice to join the top tier for 2021.

Rugby league has always been a sport that has been somewhat marginalised, that has always had to fight for attention and even its very existence. But 2020 has produced a perfect storm of troubles – Covid-19, the Toronto farce, the reduced TV deal and the cancellation of the Ashes series in England – that sees it struggling once again.

Crippled by a lack of finance that in turn leads to short-term desperate thinking among clubs, one senses that the sport needs a complete reset in the UK and Europe. The recent reports indicating that the NRL might buy a controlling stake in Super League seemed to promise this, but that trail has gone cold in recent days.

Another report might give some hope, though. Press reports in recent days have indicated that private equity firm Novalpina has made a formal offer to buy into Super League (Europe) Limited, subject to undertaking due diligence on the company it is buying into. Novalpina would reportedly pay £60 million to acquire management rights for Super League. They would be entitled to receive a third of Super League’s broadcast income for as long as they hold their stake in the competition.

Super League would then have to pay £750,000 to Rothschild’s in return for finding a possible investor. For that deal to go ahead, all 12 Super League clubs, now including Leigh of course, would need to agree to it. Whether such a level of concurrence among the clubs is actually possible remains to be seen.

It is clear that at the very least a new and much more sophisticated media strategy is required. For too long, rugby league people have patted themselves on the back about how good the product on the pitch is and expected attention and interest just to flow as a result.

Better broadcasting strategy required

That kind of ‘build it and they will come’ idealism has proved entirely ineffectual. The more rugby league tries to expand, the smaller it becomes, which indicates a flawed process. When rugby league was widely popular in the 1980s and 90s it was on the back of widespread TV coverage – mainly on the BBC but also on ITV.

Nowadays, rugby league is almost exclusively on Sky, with a handful of Challenge Cup games and internationals on the BBC. That needs to change. Rugby union has games on almost every channel, paid or free-to-air, in the UK and rugby league desperately needs to do something similar. Relying on Sky to underwrite a game that can’t manage its own finances is weak and myopic.

The myopia is killing rugby league. The sport is stuck in a late-20th century mindset where away fans buying burgers and one big TV deal are considered as the lynchpins of commercial activity. It needs better ideas underpinned by truly radical thinking and it needs them quickly.

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