It is a time of significant change in Rugby League in this country, and nobody is under more scrutiny than RFL chief executive Nigel Wood. After an eventful start to the year, Rugby League World asks the questions that matter in an exclusive interview, and offers Wood the chance to respond to public criticism from certain quarters.
RLW: After a host of significant announcements during the close season, how do you assess the state of the game in this country at present?
NW: I think Rugby League in the UK is in a really good place in the spring of 2014. Our hosting of Rugby League World Cup 2013 proved to be a massive success and the positive legacy of that tournament is already being felt across the sport. The domestic leagues have started strongly; the restructure at the end of the year means the stakes have never been higher.
The commercial portfolio has been replenished with new and exciting blue chip brands and we have just secured a tremendous uplift in the value of our broadcast contract, which allows all levels of the game to both financially benefit and plan with certainty for the next few years.
The sport is also one of only about four or five to achieve the participation targets set by Sport England and upon which much of our development work is funded. So, on the whole, I would suggest the sport is in a great place.
RLW: Why will the new structure of the game work?
NW: After two rounds of Super League licensing, the sport had reached a position where there was a strong appetite for the restoration of promotion and relegation. I think most sensible observers realise that you can’t simply re-introduce unfettered promotion and relegation, between a league of part time clubs and the extensive and sophisticated full time environment that is Super League, without potentially damaging both leagues and the clubs that move between them. The 12s and 8s model bridges that chasm by asking aspirational clubs to demonstrate that they are more deserving of a Super League place than an existing Super League club.
There are other benefits as well; the structure tidies up the play-offs, it puts more games within club season tickets and will produce compelling inter-league fixtures at the end of each season. As with any change, there are no guaranteed outcomes and the sport will have to remain diligent to ensure that the expected benefits of the new structures are actually delivered. We certainly think that will be the case.
RLW: What did you make of the public criticism of the recent TV and sponsorship deals, most notably by Ian Lenagan and Marwan Koukash.
NW: I understand that some colleagues find it personally important to frequently offer their opinions in public. If it gets the game talked about and, more importantly, if it helps to fill club stadiums on game day, then that’s fine. Opinion is, well, opinion but I do think that anything that purports to be factual has an obligation to be accurate and objective as well as hard hitting and sometimes very subjective.
RLW: Was there any of the criticism that you thought was particularly unfair?
NW: I’d refer you to the answer to the first question: a record-breaking World Cup, a record-breaking TV deal, a full sponsorship portfolio, record TV viewing figures on Sky Sports and more people playing the actual sport than ever before.
I think most informed observers recognise that the last few months have been more about power and influence for some leading clubs than a reasonable criticism of actual performance by the governing body. It is not a coincidence that this series of attacks on the RFL has occurred since the publication of the Policy Review, which promoted a whole game solution for all levels of the sport to work together collectively.
RLW: Why was the television deal not put out to tender, and did the game suffer as a result?
NW: We are only two years into the current five-year TV contract – you cannot tender on that basis. There was clearly an option not to renegotiate at this time, but in my judgment the current market conditions were conducive to getting a good outcome for our sport. A full-blown tender process in, say 18 months, when the current European Club Rugby row has been settled, or just after the next round of Premiership football rights would, in my judgment, have been a high risk option for our sport to take. I am not sure it’s a credible position for anyone to suggest the game has suffered by ‘only’ securing a 63 per cent uplift in distributions for Super League clubs.
RLW: How do you react to suggestions from some top flight chairmen that Super League should have its own separate governance, with commercial issues of particular concern?
NW: I am absolutely 100 per cent supportive of anything that improves the financial position of the sport and does so in a just and fair way. The acid test is whether the claimed benefits outweigh the known drawbacks.
The unified executive in existence over the past 11 years or so has presided over turnover growth of around 183% from £18.6m to £52.6m. This is of course before the new TV contract kicks in, which will take us on again. When SLE Ltd was independent, income was at best static, and in reality fell.
I am personally very clear that this sport is at its best when wholly and sincerely unified. Super League is, of course, the flagship brand: it should be a kite mark for excellence and it should have the loudest voice within the family of Rugby League. But it should be within the family.
History should have taught us that division, disunity and separations result in a duplication of cost, a poorer financial performance and attention being distracted from where it should be, which is on the field. Notwithstanding that, the Super League clubs have it within their absolute power to determine whatever form of governance they wish for their company.
RLW: Is it fair to say the sport has underperformed commercially in recent years, and is that now changing?
NW: Let me say this loud and clear – more central commercial money flowed into Rugby League in 2013 than ever before. I do agree that our commercial performance was set back by the Stobart contract in 2011 and, in particular, by how that was reported. It would be fair to say it has taken us two years to rebuild from that point.
However the sponsorship portfolio is pretty full now, with high quality strong brands, some of which migrated from the World Cup or were attracted to the sport because of that tournament. This is a perfect example of why unity works best for the sport.
RLW: Are players in Rugby League paid enough, and if not, what can be done to remedy that whilst operating with a salary cap system?
NW: Our players need to take a fair proportion of what the sport generates. It is difficult to say they should be paid more when for the past five years too many clubs have been recording significant losses that have to be made up by their owner’s private funds. As the sport grows it is entirely right for players’ salaries to grow.
I would also suggest that job security has been as much an issue as salary levels. The new commercial and TV arrangements for Super League should substantially fix that now and any future club financial failure really will be inexcusable.
Notwithstanding that, the RFL would love to see the leading players earn more and we have been debating the introduction of some form of marquee player allowance for the past couple of years. However financial stability is equally important and the clubs recently and understandably determined that this was the priority.
The whole issue of player supply involves a number of inter-related policies – covering junior development Academy, access to overseas talent and possible rugby union converts. The Policy Review document sets out some of the measure the RFL believes needs to be taken to make sense of these various factors.
RLW: Is the size of players’ wages the key issue when looking at possible threats from the NRL and rugby union? Is the idea of a minimum wage from 1eagu3 a good one?
NW: I am committed to promoting a regime of lighter regulation so, intrinsically I do not wish to look for reasons to find more rules for clubs to have to abide by. I do, however, think that employment for people within Rugby League, including but not limited to players, needs to be more secure, more developed by reference to on-the-job training and upskilling and vocational training.
The RFL has led the agenda on player welfare over the past few years and I’d certainly like to see the whole sport do more for full-time players coming to the end of their careers. Some clubs do this really well, other not so.
RLW: Does it frustrate you to see certain clubs continually lurch from one financial crisis to another, and what can be done to help prevent that?
NW: Yes. We already do far more than most other sports and probably more than we should. I don’t see other sports’ governing bodies having to burn off the hundreds of hours we do propping up incompetently run clubs. The re-introduction of promotion and relegation, together with the strengthening of the rules of insolvency, should put the responsibility for club failure back on club boards.
RLW: What are the plans for the third tier of the professional game from 2015 onwards? Can you understand the perception that they were being overlooked when all the talk, publicly at least, was of two divisions of 12?
NW: The RFL’s commitment to Tier Three and deeper in the playing pyramid is absolute. We worked hard with Oxford, Hemel and University of Gloucestershire to help them make successful introductions into Kingstone Press Championships and it is to their enormous credit that they did so well in their first season. We are looking further at what else can be done to deliver vibrant Tier Three competitions.
One of the key issues for the sport from 2015 is to determine whether the time is right for promotion and relegation between Tiers Three and Four which, on last year’s finishing positions would see the likes of Gloucester, Gateshead and South Wales swapping with West Hull. We would have to be really sure that overall the sport’s best interests were being fully served as we wrestle between the variable playing strengths in different parts of the country.
RLW: Should there be a return to a reserve grade that caters for overage players, and is it fair for clubs to make decisions on the futures of so many talented youngsters at the age of 19?
NW: This issue gets more attention than most and frankly different experts have different views. The reality is that players mature at different times and as such you need a suite of measures capable of ensuring players have different routes available to them to fulfill their potential. It may not be a good use of the game’s scarce resources to have an expensive full tier of reserve grade for the benefit of two or three players in any age group. If player supply was limitless, and cash was limitless, then you would have a full blown reserve grade. Unfortunately neither are.
RLW: How is the sport in this country capitalising on the successes of the World Cup?
NW: The World Cup brought the sport to the attention of the wider public. Our viewing figures were strong and we’ve started this season strongly. Commercially sponsors have transferred into the domestic competition and more people are trying Rugby League, be that as a player a spectator, a TV viewer or a volunteer. The World Cup reminded the wider sporting community what an absolutely great game Rugby League is and I believe its benefits will be felt for many years to come.
RLW: How do you see your own future within the sport?
NW: I seem to have been asked this a lot of late. I am proud of the most successful World Cup of all time, pleased that we now have a full sponsorship portfolio for the sport and excited by the a record-breaking TV contract providing unprecedented financial stability for the sport and its clubs. The sport has exciting new league structures to look forward to in 2015 and hopefully the re-introduction of a proper Lions Tour.
Clearly, the credit for our success rests with a strong and talented team here at the RFL, which I am watching develop with every passing month and I am looking forward to working with them as the sport enters a bold new era. There is a lot of work to be done between now and the start of 2015 to deliver the new structures and the other elements of the Policy Review, which is a far-reaching document that impacts on every level of the sport. In the short term I’m also committed to doing all I can to improve Brighouse Rangers under-14s in my capacity as their trainee assistant coach!