Can the Challenge Cup be revived or is it destined to continue its decline?

Has the Challenge Cup become a poisoned chalice for rugby league? Revered for its past, but now suffering from declining interest from fans and clubs, what does the future hold?

ONE of the world’s most iconic rugby league grounds. Two of the sport’s great giants. The most historic cup competition in all rugby.

It should be a big occasion, yet it is anything but. On a dark, chilly and thoroughly wet Friday night at Headingley, St Helens beat Leeds with some ease and no great excitement in this year’s Challenge Cup last-16.

Just 7,108 are in attendance, less than half the crowd that watched the exact same fixture in Super League seven days earlier. Few more watch from home – the match is hidden away on the BBC iPlayer, with no TV coverage at all of the round.

It was a sorry occasion all-round, on a weekend that summed up the steady decline of the Challenge Cup.

That crowd at Headingley was actually the highest declared attendance of the eight ties. Warrington drew barely 3,000 against London. Huddersfield and Hull FC played in front of a truly pitiful 1,673.

Super League clubs only entered that week and, by the end of it, were all that was left. Three of the four Championship clubs gave top-flight opposition a decent match but all ultimately fell. 

It was a case of ‘nothing to see here’ – literally, in the crowds and TV audience.

How has it come to this? Why is the sport’s most famous competition now considered such an irrelevance to so many? And what – if anything – can be done to reverse this?

The thrill of sport is usually the uncertainty of outcome. Seven different clubs have won the competition in the past seven years: Hull FC, Catalans, Warrington, Leeds, St Helens, Wigan and most recently Leigh. A further four clubs have provided the past four finalists: Salford, Castleford, Huddersfield, Hull KR. If unpredictability was the barometer of the Challenge Cup’s health, this ought to be considered a golden era.

And it still has the power to captivate both rugby league supporters and the general public. Leigh’s success last season was a genuinely brilliant story, thrusting the club into the mainstream.

As their coach Adrian Lam – who also won the Cup as a player in 2002 with Wigan – puts it: “Supporters of other sports who don’t follow rugby league know who we are now, and I think that’s important, that we’ve etched our name in history and folklore.”

For players, too, it remains a competition of great prestige, as Niall Evalds – who lost the 2020 and 2021 finals with Salford and Castleford respectively, though claimed the Lance Todd Trophy the latter year – attests.

“When I played in those two finals, the whole build-up of the week and everything around it, going up to Wembley, just the history of it, it really excites you as a player,” he says.

“Whenever I’ve watched the finals since, there’s a tinge of jealousy that I’m not taking part. It’s a massive occasion. For me personally, it’s a massive competition and I really enjoy playing in it.”

The Challenge Cup has not lost the backing of those taking part. What it has lost – in droves – is the fans.

One chief complaint is how late top-flight sides enter. For the sake of playing one game fewer, it seems a counter-productive position to insist upon. It means more chance of playing a Super League rival that you’re already facing three times a season, a big turn-off for fans. And it devalues the whole ‘road to Wembley’ when only three wins are required to reach the final.

It is certainly no good for lower-league teams, whose hopes of an exciting draw are minute. The only one to get an eye-catching fixture this year was Sheffield, who travelled to the side they famously beat in the 1998 final, Wigan, and led before the half-time hooter only to fall 44-18.

“That was a great day for us,” says Eagles coach Mark Aston. “But the smaller clubs don’t always get those big ties that you always wanted in the day that we played. They (Super League clubs) come in late so there’s not that massive chance of a shock.”

As recently as 2014, all Super League teams entered at the last-32 stage, in which games were televised by the BBC and occasionally Sky. Until amateur clubs were invited en masse from 1993-94, all the professional teams went straight into a hat (indeed, that season, finalists Wigan and Widnes both started in the preliminary round!) and that was that.

The open cup draw certainly helped deliver excitement, but its abolition is a reflection of an important issue – the disparity between teams at various levels that has grown widely with full-time professionalism upon Super League’s advent.

Super League clubs have won their last 19 ties against lower-league opposition, a run stretching back to Bradford’s defeat of Leeds in the 2019 sixth round. In the last 15 years, top-flight sides have won 111 of the 121 matches against a Championship or League One team.

It’s one thing having a part-time side host one of the game’s giants, and another for them to have any realistic chance of beating them. And if the result is an inevitable thumping, supporters will stay away – take this year’s crowd of 1,811 at Halifax for a 40-4 defeat to Catalans as an example. Likewise, certain victory isn’t attractive for a Super League club fan, either.

Consequently, the Cup has lost its value – quite literally. Prize money is woefully low – a run to the last-16 this season was rewarded by just £1,500. (In 1996, that figure was £6,000.) Many clubs are actually losing money by staging Cup fixtures, so low is the revenue from small gates.

“Playing big games, clubs can make a little bit of money. You draw Wigan and there’s 6,000 there, that’s a nice little payday,” says Aston.

“To progress through the competition, it’s costing clubs money, because of the winning pay and everything towards (hosting) the fixture. We shouldn’t be in the market of losing money. We should be making money.

“If Super League clubs did come in a little bit earlier, it would give more clubs the chance to generate some more revenue.”

Only when it comes to the final does the Challenge Cup seem to still hold prestige, as well as be financially rewarding to any great degree. Wembley is one of the world’s most iconic sporting arenas and for rugby league to have a day there is a boon.

Evalds says: “Thinking who has been in those seats that you’re sat in, in sports across the board, for you to be able to say you’ve competed at that stadium is something special.”

Nonetheless, crowds are reducing. From regularly reaching 90,000 at the old Wembley up to the 1980s, pushing the reduced 80,000 all-seated capacity in the 1990s and attracting similar figures at the new ground following its 2007 opening, the last three non-Covid crowds have averaged 57,000.

Some have suggested downsizing to a venue that the final could fill. But doing so will only reduce the attendance further – the 51,628 at Tottenham in 2022 (11,000 short of capacity) was the lowest figure for a final (minus Covid finals and a replay) between two English teams since the Second World War.

Moving the timing of the final each year cannot help. It long maintained an early May slot throughout the 20th century, and even at the start of the 21st was reliably on the August Bank Holiday weekend. But since 2019 it has changed place every year – to October (because of Covid), then July, then May, then August (but not the Bank Holiday). This season, it will be in June.

“For me, the Challenge Cup still has that magic, but I’m not sure if switching the dates of when the various rounds take place has affected it a little bit,” says Luke Robinson, a past finalist with Huddersfield as both player and assistant coach.

“I know we are trying to fine tune it and try to work out what suits best with viewing figures and from a commercial point of view, but it should have a place in the calendar.

“It should be made clear that this is when it will be played and then that becomes a regular occurrence.”

It is certainly obvious that the Challenge Cup final is no longer the ‘big day out’ it once was.

“All the fans from every club used to go to Wembley. That was the big rugby league weekend when everybody, no matter who you supported, went down to London,” says Aston.

“Now we have the Grand Final, which is a massive occasion, and the Magic Weekend. People only have so much money. If you keep reaching into the same pockets, something is going to suffer, and that’s the Challenge Cup.”

It is tempting to look at the decline of the Challenge Cup and see the more general decline of Rugby League in the UK. But that is not the case – if anything, it is a product of the game’s growth in other areas.

The Super League Grand Final – despite a far more predictable character list, particularly among its winners – quickly became an event far superior to its predecessor, the Premiership Final, upon its institution in 1998. It is now the biggest prize in the sport and the biggest game in the calendar, as reflected by sell-out or near-attendance crowds at Old Trafford most seasons (it is too early to read with certainty the sudden drop-off since Covid).

Magic Weekend has been a similarly successful venture since 2007, albeit one less geographically rooted, with aggregate attendances over 60,000 most years. Throw in a trip or two to France each season, where English fans travel in admirable numbers, and it is easy to see how Wembley has been marginalised.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the Challenge Cup’s place in the sport today – and knockout competitions in sport more generally.

NRL clubs don’t need one, and US sports don’t either – play-offs do the job just fine. Rugby union in England has never had a cup to come anywhere close to ours. Outside the international arena, in modern professional sport cup competitions simply don’t add up – to clubs or to fans.

The closest equivalent to the Challenge Cup is the FA Cup, but that too has declined greatly in stature. Not only do the fans not turn up, the top players don’t either, rested for any other game of greater importance. The Premier League is far and away the superior prize while the Champions League final is the biggest club match.

For both the FA Cup and Challenge Cup, the biggest draw is the history, and that’s a good sign that it has little future.

You can tweak the format – ensuring clubs from different divisions play each other more is the most obvious one, considering that is the competition’s USP – but ultimately you cannot overcome all of the wider problems.

Instead the question should not be how to revive the Challenge Cup to past glories, but how to develop other events that are fit for the future.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 496 (May 2024)

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