Challenge Cup set for radical format change from next year

THE Challenge Cup could see huge changes to its format in 2024, as leading officials consider whether to introduce pools of clubs rather than having a conventional knockout format.

Given that the RFL’s partner IMG has proposed doing away with loop fixtures in Super League and the Magic Weekend, officials recognise that clubs would want something to replace those fixtures to replace the income they would lose.

Although Rhodri Jones, the Managing Director of RL Commercial, didn’t put forward a specific proposal when addressing the media last week, the new format could feature up to 24 teams while guaranteeing each Super League side at least one additional home game in their calendar.

The final is likely to be moved from August to a new date earlier in the season, although that would probably depend on the availability of Wembley Stadium.

“There are six solutions at the moment that we are working through,” said Jones.

“I think two of those six will be viable; and those two we will be taking forward in a bit more detail.

“It has felt over the last couple of years that the sixth round has just landed; and we haven’t started the competition off with a bang. That’s something we’ve been looking at – how can we provide a starting point for the Challenge Cup.

“If we look at the whole calendar, including the format of the Challenge Cup, it might not necessarily mean that clubs lose the two home games that they currently get as part of the loop fixtures,” added Jones.

“We can in theory get rid of the loop fixtures but what are the consequences of that? We need to refine it a little bit; and try and work out a solution that means we are playing less due to player welfare. But we are not totally taking two home games off the clubs, or missing ‘Magic’ income.”

Meanwhile RL Commercial and IMG are currently undertaking negotiations for a new broadcasting deal from 2024.

“We are actively talking to Sky but the market is buoyant. There are other players in the market who were perhaps not in the market 18 months ago, so that prompts good conversations with those places as well,” he added.

“The same goes with the Channel 4 contract. That ties in with the Sky contract at the moment. Soundings with Channel 4 are very positive in terms of continuing their relationship with Super League. But we have to conclude the major domestic rights deal first.

“The BBC contract runs until 2024, so that is locked in. Obviously, they have been a long-term partner of the sport and we hope they will continue that as well.”

Jones is confident that the new Super League season, which begins at Warrington on Thursday, will see an upturn in interest and support for the competition.

“Hull KR have sold out, while Leigh and Warrington are putting on spectacular shows and Castleford is near to a sell-out against St Helens the following week,” said Jones.

“The clubs are very focused on 2023 and the visibility of this competition because they know that the likes of Sky and Channel 4 are watching and are going to make decisions on the future of the sport in the next couple of months. That has been really good to see because they realise the bigger picture on the IMG stuff.

“The grading criteria will be revealed on March 9 and we then go into consultation and six weeks’ later we will decide whether we will be going forward on that.”