Can Prince Harry help us to find new youthful audiences?

MARTYN SADLER, the editor of League Express, writes about Rugby League’s compulsive need for change and the potential impact of Prince Harry on the popularity of the game.

I sometimes wonder whether Rugby League suffers from an institutional form of ADHD – Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

As any doctor would know, ADHD is a chronic condition that affects millions of children and often continues into adulthood.

It includes a combination of persistent problems, such as difficulty sustaining attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behaviour, low self-esteem, troubled relationships and poor performance in school.

It’s a serious condition about which doctors are learning more and more. Anyone with a child who suffers from the condition would know how serious it is.

But those symptoms also seem characteristic of a Rugby League administration that seems uniquely unable to focus attention on the structures it creates and instead is attracted to making impulsive decisions to completely turn Rugby League upside down every three years or so.

There is so much talk going on among the RFL and the clubs about changing the current two-twelves three-eights structure, doing away with the Magic Weekend, doing away with the League 1 Cup, moving the Challenge Cup Final away from late August and perhaps even away from Wembley.

When I speak to some of the leading figures at some of our leading clubs it’s quite striking how exhausted they appear to be with all the constant changes that emanate from Red Hall.

For example, in League Express this week Davide Longo, the general manager of Featherstone Rovers, lamented the fact that he can’t be sure how the league is going to look in the 2018 season.

That has to be a completely crazy situation.

How on earth can any club hope to operate on that basis?

And yet they all have to.

Any sensible sporting organisation plans three or more years ahead, not just a matter of months ahead.

Instead of planning short-term changes the RFL should focus on the promotion of the competitions it controls.

Unfortunately that’s where it falls down.

The RFL seems unable to generate the sort of excitement that would see new fans flocking to watch Rugby League.

That is at least partly because it seems unable to promote its greatest asset – its players.

And one reason for that must surely be that it doesn’t seem to have a role for players in expanding interest in the game.

Last Thursday, for example, it was good to see Prince Harry, in his new role as the Patron of the RFL, come to Headingley to participate in a Sky Try development exercise with local youngsters.

Also invited were some of our leading players, most of whom met the Prince and had very positive words to say about him.

It was clearly an opportunity to spread the word to an audience that doesn’t normally take much interest in Rugby League.

And indeed there were plenty of local media covering the event. But I’m not sure it made many national newspapers.

When Prince Harry was announced as the new Patron there were plenty of letters that we published from readers who doubted whether it was a wise move by the RFL. David Hinchliffe, the former Secretary of the Parliamentary Rugby League Group, wrote an article in League Express questioning the decision in quite strong terms.

But those people who met Prince Harry last week, including some of those leading players, were impressed by the interest he took in the event and his demeanour throughout the afternoon.

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him, and, if so, I hope he can play some small part in helping Rugby League to appeal to a new and more youthful audience.

Prince Harry has spoken a lot about mental health issues in the last few years.

A cynic may say that is perhaps his best qualification for being the Patron of a sport that suffers from institutional ADHD.

But my hope is that he will be the catalyst for a new, younger audience to become interested in what I hope he now realises is a great sport.

This article is based on Martyn Sadler’s Talking Rugby League article in this week’s League Express.