Championship Focus: Headingley has a tough task emulating Blackpool as a Summer Bash venue

Innovations often come and go at a remarkable pace in Rugby League, but few have become as instantly popular as the Summer Bash.

Looking to emulate the success of Super League’s Magic Weekend, the RFL introduced its own version for the Championship in 2015 and arguably did it even better.

Where Magic has changed venues several times (five different cities in three nations of the UK, by the latest count) in search of the perfect spot, the biggest factor in the Summer Bash success story has been in hitting the jackpot first time around.

Blackpool just ticked every box from the outset. Its location in the north, on the edge of the heartlands and easily accessible from Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria, meant everyone could come along.

And everyone wanted to come along, because it just so happened to be a top tourist destination to boot. Between the Pleasure Beach, the Tower and the nightlife, it was the perfect weekend for fans of all ages.

It was a match made in heaven, and the event was soon as permanent a fixture of the Championship as the word Blackpool through a stick of rock. Weekend attendances averaged 15,000 over the first five years and the tradition looked set to continue for many years to come.

But then Covid arrived and put a stop to the party. The season was cancelled altogether in 2020, and the uncertainty going into the following year meant it was never scheduled in 2021.

It has now been more than three years since every Championship club got together, but the wait is finally over as the Bash returns this weekend. However, it comes back with a difference.

Firstly, the date. Previously always held in May, the event has now been switched to July to avoid too close a clash with both the Magic Weekend and the Challenge Cup final.

But that change inadvertently caused a problem for this year. With the football season starting earlier due to a winter World Cup, Bloomfield Road became unavailable and Bash organisers were faced with finding a fresh venue for the first time.

It means that instead of a jaunt to the seaside, fans will be making the trip to Leeds as Headingley takes over hosting duties.

The ground has its plus points, without question. Recently renovated, it’s a fine stadium and one that is full of history and heritage in Rugby League. Many of the clubs involved in the Summer Bash won’t have been there for many a year and it will be an exciting prospect for many players.

Leeds is also as slap-bang in the game’s heartlands as they come, so it will be an easy trip across for many supporters to cheer their side on.

But the ground itself is not nearly as accessible, far out of the city in contrast to Blackpool and, in the case of Magic, Newcastle; two venues to which fans have taken to heart.

As a weekend destination, the suburb of Headingley does not compare to the centre of Blackpool, and the concern will be that supporters come to watch their team play and then head straight back home, taking the ‘Bash’ right out of Summer Bash.

The nature of the ground makes it challenging to create the sort of attraction, with the activities and stalls seen recently at Magic Weekend, to keep people entertained all weekend – even if the players, as always, will put on a show worth watching on the field.

Alex Simmons, well known for his work on Rugby AM, has been called up for more DJ duties, fresh from providing the entertainment at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for the Challenge Cup final, and he will hope to keep people in his home city and in good spirits throughout each day.

However, there is no doubt that Headingley has a tough job on its hands emulating the success that Blackpool has had in hosting the Bash.

At this stage the expectation is that it will return to the resort next year, with Bloomfield Road still fully on board with hosting.

But for this season, organisers have been forced to fix an event that wasn’t broken. Let’s hope any damage done is not irreparable.

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