MARTYN SADLER, the editor of League Express, put forward a proposal for a new competition structure that would involve all the 36 current full-time and part-time Rugby League clubs in Super League, the Championship and League 1.
The starting point
Discussions are ongoing between the RFL and Super League clubs about a realignment of the elite competition with the clubs currently in the Championship and League 1.
The object of such talks should surely be to remove barriers between the clubs and to create a competitive structure that gives all clubs an incentive to move forward together without placing them under undue financial risk.
A key aim should be to remove the divisions in the game between clubs at different levels that appear to have grown in recent years.
It would be easy for the Super League clubs to respond to this situation by offering to make cosmetic changes that would have little impact on those divisions, while failing to halt the downward spiral of broadcasting income that we’ll see from 2022.
So it may be that far more fundamental changes are required, which is the position I take in this paper.
In setting out this rationale, it is useful to look back briefly at the history of Super League and the relative lack of progress made over a 25-year period since its inauguration.
The Super League competition was launched in 1996 with twelve clubs.
It expanded to 14 clubs in 1999 with the admission of Gateshead Thunder and Wakefield Trinity, but it reverted to twelve clubs in 2000 with the mergers of Huddersfield and Sheffield, and Hull FC and Gateshead respectively.
It expanded again to 14 clubs at the beginning of licensing in 2009, but it was reduced again to twelve clubs from 2015, after licensing had ended.
At various times there have been promotion and relegation to and from Super League and there have been periods, especially during the six years of licensing, when there was no conventional promotion and relegation.
From 2015 we had the Super 8s, which lasted for four seasons, but which was abandoned from the 2019 season after the Super League clubs broke away from the RFL, with the structure reverting to a more conventional promotion and relegation format, with one team promoted from the Championship and one relegated from Super League, although the Covid pandemic intervened in 2020, with Toronto Wolfpack, the promoted club in 2019, leaving the competition.
The constant changes in format contributed to the fact that the broadcasting income generated from Sky Sports, which had been running at around £40 million per year, will be reduced to around £25 million per year from the 2022 season.
Although there may also be factors contributing to this decline that are closely related to the changing nature of the broadcasting environment, it would be hard not to conclude that Rugby League has so far failed to find a competitive structure that helps the sport to thrive and that is attractive to broadcasters in the long term.
Part of the problem is that too few teams enjoy success, with only four clubs having won the Super League title in 25 years. It would be hard not to conclude that the current competitive structure mitigates against there being a wider range of successful clubs.
At the other end of the Super League table, clubs that have been relegated from the competition have often struggled to survive unless they have been able to return to Super League after spending just one season in the Championship.
Those that weren’t able to do that have taken massive financial hits, with several clubs having a history of going into administration, or even liquidation, after being relegated from the elite competition.
Putting clubs in financial danger weakens Rugby League at all levels. It would therefore be sensible to create a structure that, if possible, doesn’t expose clubs to that risk.
This paper represents my attempt to achieve that objective, reducing the financial risks to the clubs of rising or falling within the Rugby League hierarchy, while creating a competitive structure that is more attuned to spreading success among more clubs.
I have created a structure that allows for 25 regular season league fixtures that are derived from six Conferences, which themselves are based on broadly geographical criteria.
The Conferences would be as follows, with the teams listed in the order of their positions in the current league tables (as at Wednesday 4th August 2021) for each proposed Conference.
Conference 1 (Western Conference)
Conference 2 (Greater Manchester Conference)
Salford Red Devils
Conference 3 (Pennine Conference)
Conference 4 (North East Conference)
Conference 5 (Eastern Conference)
Hull Kingston Rovers
York City Knights
Conference 6 (Three Nations Conference)
North Wales Crusaders
West Wales Raiders
Under this structure each team will play 25 league fixtures as follows, before play-offs to determine the Grand Finalists.
Five matches at home and five away against each of the other teams in its Conference, giving ten matches in total.
Another 15 matches as follows:
To create fixtures, in each Conference the teams will be ranked one to six in the order in which they finished the previous season.
Team 1 in each Conference will play one match against Teams 1, 2 and 3 in each of the other five Conferences.
Team 2 in each Conference will play one match against Teams 1, 2 and 4 in each of the other five Conferences.
Team 3 in each Conference will play one match against Teams 1, 3 and 5 in each of the other five Conferences.
Team 4 in each Conference will play one match against Teams 2, 4 and 6 in each of the other five Conferences.
Team 5 in each Conference will play one match against Teams 3, 5 and 6 in each of the other five Conferences.
Team 6 in each Conference will play one match against Teams 4, 5 and 6 in each of the other five Conferences.
This structure means that when clubs play opponents from the other Conferences, they are likely more often than not to be matched reasonably evenly.
Given that there will be 25 fixtures in total, one fixture for each club could be played in a Magic Weekend format.
The league tables will be presented separately for each Conference throughout the season.
The team at the top of the table for each Conference at the end of the regular season would be deemed the respective Conference Champions and would be presented with a Championship trophy before the start of the play-offs.
That means there would be six trophies presented at that point in the season leading into the play-offs.
The play-offs would last for five weeks and would be contested by ten teams, selected as follows:
Six teams will comprise the respective Conference Champions.
Four teams will be selected from across all the Conferences, and they will be the four teams other than the Conference Champions with the best playing records for the season, meaning that any one Conference could supply one or more of those four additional teams.
Looking at the current league tables, and assuming that they finished in that order, the Conference winners would be Catalans Dragons, St Helens, Hull FC, Wigan Warriors, Leeds Rhinos and Huddersfield Giants.
The four teams not in that list, but with the best playing records, in order, are Warrington Wolves, Hull Kingston Rovers, Castleford Tigers and Salford Red Devils.
Those four teams would play a ‘Wild Card’ round in the first week of the play-offs, with the six Conference Champions having a free weekend.
The Wild Card format would be 1 v 4 and 2 v 3, so that if current league positions applied, it would be Warrington Wolves v Salford Red Devils and Hull Kingston Rovers v Castleford Tigers.
The second week of the play-offs would see elimination games between the two Conference Champions that effectively the fifth and sixth best performing sides fronting the two Wild Card winners. So Team 5 would play the winner of the Wild Card game between teams 2 and 3, and Team 6 would play the winner of the Wild Card game between teams 1 and 4.
So on current standings, those games would be: Leeds Rhinos v Hull Kingston Rovers or Castleford Tigers, and Huddersfield Giants v Warrington Wolves or Salford Red Devils.
The top four Conference Champions would play each other in the form 1 v 4 and 2 v 3, but these matches would not be elimination games. The winners would have a week off in week 3, while the losers would face the winners of the two elimination games from the previous week.
In week 4 we would be down to the last four clubs, while week 5 would be the Grand Final weekend.
The distribution of funding to the club, especially when the central funding is declining, is always going to be a difficult issue.
But if we assume that the amount available for distribution next year would be £24 million in total, then that would become £4 million to the six clubs in each Conference.
The RFL, in consultation with the clubs, should determine how those funds will be distributed.
I would suggest that the funds in each Conference should be allocated in accordance with finishing positions in the previous season, adjusted to reflect key performance indicators, such as the operation of Reserves, Academy and so on.
If the distribution were to be allocated in accordance with finishing positions in the previous season, the following is just one potential example:
Team 1: £1.28 million (32%)
Team 2: £1.04 million (26%)
Team 3: £800,000 (20%)
Team 4: £560,000 (14%)
Team 5: £320,000 (8%)
Team 6: £80,000 (2%).
In this case, each rise of one position in the table would be worth £240,000 and the distribution would give each club a major incentive to climb its own Conference table, but doesn’t put pressure on it to overspend in order to attain an old-fashioned promotion.
But I would emphasise that this distribution model is potentially just one of many.
And it will also evolve over time, hopefully with all clubs seeing their distribution rise as income from sponsorship and broadcasting rose.
What objections could be mounted to this proposal?
- The change is too radical, to which I would reply that our record as a sport over the last 25 years shows that radical change is needed. I believe that the proposal to have just ten teams in Super League is merely doubling down on a failed strategy.
- It dilutes the elite competition. In fact the cross-Conference games in this structure would still ensure that all the leading clubs played each other with big matches suitable for broadcasters able to be scheduled every week.
- There could be too many one-sided games within the Conferences. In Rugby League there will always be one-sided matches, as we saw recently in Super League when Salford put 70 points on Castleford and as we have seen in the NRL this season. In the short term, some one-sided scorelines would happen, but in the longer term I would hope that all the Conferences would be able to level up to a significant degree. And it’s also worth pointing out at this stage that the RFL’s proposal incorporates a Conference style pool structure for the early rounds of the Challenge Cup, which would be subject to the same potential criticism.
- The six Conferences wouldn’t be of an equal standard. Some Conferences have one, some have two and some have three current Super League clubs. That may be so in the short term, but in the longer term the strength of each Conference would rise and fall. In the NFL, for example, the weakest Conference in 2020/21 was the NFC East, with the former powerhouses of Washington, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles all having losing seasons, despite their previous record of success.
- There isn’t enough money to go round to all the clubs via a central distribution to ensure that all clubs are viable. This is certainly an issue, but it is one that the RFL and Super League have to come to terms with. The financial distribution of broadcasting and sponsorship income is a problem under any structure that we might put forward.
- The fans and the general public wouldn’t understand the competition format. But I find this unlikely, given that Conference formats are common in American sports, which many sports fans, including Rugby League supporters, are fully aware of, and, for example, in rugby union’s European Cup competition.
- A move to Conferences would take us away from unsustainable promotion and relegation models.
- It would be a model similar to successful models elsewhere, particularly in the USA, such as the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS. It’s interesting to note that Major League Soccer began in 1996, the same year as Super League, but its original ten teams has since expanded to 27 teams in 2021 with 30 teams set to compete in 2023.
- Ambitious clubs would be able to rise up their Conference rankings without gambling on whether they could win promotion in a competition with a conventional format.
- An increase in derby matches within Conferences would help reinforce attendances and generate income, particularly for the clubs that currently lie in the Championship and League 1.
- The Conferences themselves could potentially have six different naming sponsors, while the competition as a whole could have a major sponsor, as it has now.
- This structure gives the potential for shock results from time to time, which would generate interest and enthusiasm from supporters.
- All 36 clubs currently playing in Super League, the Championship and League 1 would be brought together in one major competition. There would be unity, rather than division.
- More clubs would win trophies and the Conferences would generate keen rivalries within them.
- Ambitious clubs and club owners can see a clear pathway to enjoying major success if they can rise up the Conference ladders.
- For that reason, it would be easier to attract investment into clubs at all levels of the game.
- The RFL’s marketing and commercial team would be selling the game as a whole, making it much more attractive commercially, not one part of it, as is currently happening.
- Potential new clubs could seek to replace any failing clubs within this structure, either by buying and relocating them, or by replacing them. The RFL could even create a system whereby the bottom club in each Conference had to apply for re-election, with its merits weighed against any new clubs that were seeking to enter the competition.
- The structure is extremely flexible in terms of the number of fixtures to be scheduled. For example, if the RFL wanted to reduce the fixture list in a World Cup year, or in any other year to create space for international matches, it could reduce the number of regular-season fixtures to 22 matches by having teams in each Conference play against teams from only four other Conferences, rather than all five.
- There has been a debate for many years about Cumbria having no presence in Super League. This structure would bring the Cumbrian clubs, along with all the other clubs, back into the mainstream in their Conference.
The Challenge Cup and 1895 Cup
We clearly would want to retain the Challenge Cup within whatever structure we propose. And I would suggest that we should also retain the 1895 Cup with its final played at Wembley, as we saw this year when Featherstone defeated York in a game that was a great advertisement for that competition.
But how would they fit into this competitive structure?
Inevitably there are various potential alternatives, but I would suggest the following.
The first five rounds of the season should consist of intra-Conference matches only and the six clubs at the top of the respective Conferences after those five rounds should take part in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals alongside the two other clubs with the best records throughout all six Conferences.
The Challenge Cup should then be played from the last eight onwards on a conventional knockout basis.
The 1895 Cup should also begin with eight clubs, playing on the same weekend as the last eight of the Challenge Cup.
The clubs taking part in the 1895 Cup should be the best performing clubs in the opening five weeks of the season who were classed as teams 4, 5 and 6 in each Conference at the end of the previous season. That would retain the concept of the 1895 Cup being aimed at clubs that at this stage of their development were unlikely to get to the Challenge Cup Final, but which could nonetheless still appear at Wembley to boost their support.
The RFL appears to be favouring a system that would see only ten clubs in Super League from 2023 onwards, with ten more in a second tier and 16 in a third tier.
In my view an elite competition with only ten clubs in it is a recipe for failure and is unlikely to generate great enthusiasm, particularly among the clubs that are excluded from the proposed Super League of ten clubs.
And even the supporters of the clubs that are included would tend to get bored with playing against the same opponents all the time.
The structure I’m proposing, on the other hand, will bring all the game together under one umbrella, while retaining the idea of elite clubs playing against each other, while other clubs had fixtures against teams broadly at their level.
It will remove the financial pressures placed on clubs by a conventional promotion and relegation system.
And it is a format that will make it easier to encourage new investment into the game.
Finally, I would point out that I have been around Rugby League for more years than I care to remember. I have seen numerous competitive structures that have come and gone, most of them unlamented, and I think I understand the weaknesses I have witnessed over that time.
I have also studied the competitive structure of other major sports that enjoy considerable success and I’ve identified what makes them successful.
Unfortunately too many people in British Rugby League look no farther than association football, applying its hierarchical league structure with promotion and relegation, but not recognising the shortcomings of that system when applied to Rugby League.
At the present moment it’s hard to deny that Rugby League is facing a time of crisis. And at times of crisis it is always better to bring everyone together rather than continuing with divisions.
I hope the RFL and the clubs will give serious consideration to the proposals in this paper before they commit themselves to going down the wrong path.
4th August 2021