Is rugby league in Britain caught in one long Groundhog Day?

Clubs change their teams in desperate bids to stay up so they can go through the same circus-like cycle again for another year, whilst the sport’s administrators are at each other’s throats. 

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Steve Mascord

Clubs change their teams in desperate bids to stay up so they can go through the same circus-like cycle again for another year, whilst the sport’s administrators are at each other’s throats. 

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Will Ralph Rimmer, new RFL CEO bring changes? ©BBC

 

Transfer deadline days like last week’s used to be a bit of fun for fans; instead, they now lay bare the financial failings of our clubs.

A couple of days after Salford – via a director – asked for fans to help them sign players for the Qualifiers, Leigh sold a bunch of stars and their owner announced he intended to depart next year.

All of this comes against the backdrop of a supposed battle for power between Super League clubs and everyone else, and as the ceremonial role as RFL president is handed over to Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester.

Sometimes the sport seems to be running on bald tires, ready to skid off the road and into a ditch.

Surely we have to eventually learn from clubs repeatedly getting themselves into financial bother by either trying to gain promotion or stay up that we’re stuck in a destructive Groundhog Day loop.

But there’s a deeper problem, isn’t there? There just doesn’t seem to be enough money to go around in rugby league. When we get to the back end of the year, the haves simply buy players from the have-nots and leave them the have-even-lesses.

When clubs have no reserve grade and profess to be worried about being able to muster 17 players, we have bigger issues than what play-off system works best and whether to keep the Super 8s.

Perhaps things need to get even worse before they can get better.

Currently we have teams representing mainly small towns and villages – there are exceptions – fighting over the scraps thrown to them by a TV company in return for selling subscriptions and advertising to those same small towns and villages. The less interested the next generation is in the game, the more money saved by the TV companies who’ll no longer have to fork out for the rights.

The financial way out for the Super League clubs, in particular, would seem to have been giving the likes of Catalans, Toronto and Toulouse a share of the domestic TV money and putting any overseas rights into a central pot as well.

That’s what happens in Australasia – the New Zealand Warriors are the most valuable team in terms of rights income from the Shaky Isles but they get no more from the Sky TV deal than any other club. It’s divvy’d up evenly.

But in the case of Toronto, anyway, it seems the Super League clubs won’t share the existing TV income which means their financial escape hatch is blocked – the Wolfpack will get the lions (or Wolf’s) share of any future North American contract.

Short-termism at its worst.

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Toronto Wolfpack are developing their own TV deals ©Toronto Wolfpack

If you looked at British rugby league from the outside, taking into account its regional peculiarities and national invisibility, what are its strengths?

In no particular order: Wigan, Leeds, St Helens, Warrington, Hull, rugby league being very popular and profitable in Australia, Wembley, Old Trafford and people in most of the world not knowing the difference between league and union.

Put another way, just as a cash-strapped club will sell of its players, cash-strapped rugby league still has IP of some value it can sell off – or at least leverage – to survive.

Wigan and Hull playing a Super League game in Wollongong this year is a nod in the direction of how British rugby league can buzz around the Australian honeypot and come away with a full tummy. Sydney.com is on the back of Wigan’s shirts all season, right?

Super League is on Australian TV and includes athletes the audiences there know. Why not set up a full-time office in Sydney and chase commercial deals? One or two such deals, or a free-to-air TV contract, would pay the salary of a NSW-domiciled staffer. Fish where the fish are; rugby league big fish are in Oz.

If the NRL won’t let Perth or Wellington or Ipswich or Port Moresby in, then why not invite them to join Super League?

Rugby league will probably never get into the centre of towns like Manchester and Liverpool with professional teams – it’s been trying and failing for too long and people in those cities think they know what rugby league is … and they aren’t interested.

This is where ignorance is the game’s friend in Toronto, New York, Belgrade and elsewhere they’ve never heard the term “northern sport”. Most fans at the Denver Test thought they were watching the All Blacks. If you’re a potential team owner, getting involved in rugby union at an elite level is far more expensive; the entry level in league is bargain basement by comparison.

Another advantage to exploit.

If the TV money goes down at the end of the current Sky deal, the sport might be bombed back to the part-time era. It’s time to identify the teams who can survive that apocalypse and combine them with others who can thrive outside in the radioactive no-British-TV-cash post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Everything must change; we just can’t keep going like this.

Steve Mascord

 

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