Can London’s potential be realised at last?

Ian Ramsdale is a Rugby League reporter for BBC London 94.9 FM and a commentator for Premier Sports. He has been covering the Broncos for six years and he produces and presents a weekly podcast about Rugby League down south. Here he gives his views on whether London Broncos’ move to The Hive in north London can be successful…

London Broncos’ 33-year-continuing quest for their holy grail has landed them in Barnet, north-west London.

A two-year deal with non-league football club Barnet FC has everyone wondering how this latest change of venue will compare to their other moves throughout their history.

It’s a situation we’re all too familiar with. Like last time back in 2005 when, with words seen on many a press release, an “exciting new partnership” was announced with Harlequins RFC. The partnership, which was “intent on being one club playing both codes of rugby”, according to the same press release, didn’t work out as planned.

So why will the Broncos’ new “exciting times” be any different? Is this really the “perfect partner” the Broncos have been looking for?

I met Barnet owner Tony Kleanthous last week and I was surprised to see how quickly he seems to have understood the importance of a London Super League club to the RFL. No doubt it was drilled into him during numerous conversations with the RFL’s Blake Solly over the last few weeks. And he is good friends with both the governing body’s Chairman Brian Barwick, and Wigan Warriors Chairman Ian Lenagan, through their football connections.

But a two-year deal has raised questions about whether this is just another stop-gap solution, even though the press release suggests it’s with a view to being longer.

And, for me, that potential is the highlight of the Broncos’ new life. It’s not what they have now, but what it could lead to. The Hive is an impressive facility for a non-league club, and Kleanthous is a savvy businessman and sports administrator. But there is so much more that the partnership could bring.

So, is it a good deal? Well, not for Hughes and Kleanthous, as such; neither got things exactly the way they wanted them. That’s why it dragged on. But both have agreed something they feel they can work with, giving rise again to that word “potential”.

David Hughes will continue as owner and 100 per cent shareholder of the Broncos, financing the club’s operations. Barnet will shoulder the cost of marketing and matchday operations while taking an income from game days. So, in short, it’s in Barnet’s interest to get the crowds in.

Saying the club will be “handed over to Kleanthous” for 2015 is a little presumptuous, but the deal does bring the possibility of much needed extra investment. The key to it is to show Kleanthous, or any other potential consortium investors, that Rugby League is a viable business in London. But it’s not, is it? Not yet.

But that’s where being at Barnet’s Hive could help in showcasing the sport in, hopefully, a more-full-than-empty stadium.

The Hive’s 5,000 capacity is below Super League standard, but when was the last time the Broncos had a crowd of over 5k? And having watched the Broncos play a game at Esher’s 3,000 capacity stadium this year, the atmosphere was far more enjoyable than watching 3,000 fans rattle round in a 15k capacity stadium. For potential investors, sponsors, full stadiums paint a much better image. Just ask the RLWC2013 organisers.

The most damaging issue is the time it’s taken to get the deal done. The turmoil the club has been dragged/pushed/taken through in the last eight weeks has really ripped it apart.

From the shedding of pretty much every single non-playing employee; the disbanding, and recently re-forming, of the Academy and Scholarship; the loss of Phil Jones, who has overseen the development of every London player to have made Super League in the last 15 years; the loss of dedicated, talented, community coaches. At least the fans of kit man Steve Magee will be delighted to know he remains at the club.

But it’s going to take some time to build up that level of passionate, talented and dedicated support again.

And all this before we even talk about their shortage of players. I’m told the club were only looking to retain six London youngsters, but around a dozen are currently in training.

Many people doubt whether they’ll be able to build a competitive squad this year. But that is one of the other key factors in making a non-mainstream sport successful in London. With all the choices available, people want to see a winning team. Simple!

For months, they’ve been in provisional talks with players. I’d expect a few announcements soon. Like the news that Hemel Stags product, Broncos trained half-back, Mike Bishay – who had planned to go down-under when the Broncos’ future was uncertain – has now decided to accept an offer from the Broncos instead, saying it will be best for his development.

It’s a rare positive story in the gloom for London fans.

I did ask the Broncos’ chief executive how anyone was expected to hear about these signings, with neither their website or Twitter feed having been updated in months. He said “it’s in hand”, with the RFL and The Hive is expected to take up the responsibility. So I’d keep your eye on the League Express…

The gravest oversight of this entire period is the club’s apparent disregard for their fans, having closed down all communication avenues. Many fans, although they are pleased to see the club continue, are considering their support. The club simply can’t afford to not value their small, but dedicated, fanbase.

As for the potential of new fans, a local paper editor in Barnet told me that the demographic in the area isn’t likely to provide reams of fans of Rugby League, but many fans tell me, although I don’t buy it, that the stadium being on the tube map will help encourage people along.

So will it be a good deal? Well, it could be. It certainly has the potential.