Club conflicts of interest pose problems for Elstone

League Express editor MARTYN SADLER assesses the structural problem that hampers Super League CEO Robert Elstone as he tries to raise the profile and image of Super League.


On 1st June 2018 Robert Elstone took up his appointment as the new Chief Executive of Super League (Europe) with a job description that presumably included the need to raise Super League’s profile, streamline its administration and marketing and begin negotiations on the vital next broadcasting deal from 2022 onwards.

Elstone has clearly had an impact, but I’m not sure he has been able to do as much as he perhaps would have liked.

And that isn’t his fault.

It’s the fault of the clubs.

They have appointed a Chief Executive and they are paying him a substantial six-figure salary that no single player in Super League probably comes anywhere near to emulating, other than Sonny Bill Williams.

In my experience, when you appoint a top man or woman, and pay the new CEO a fortune to administer an organisation, you trust them to do a good job and you allow them to get on with it and make the crucial decisions that will determine the prosperity or otherwise of the organisation.

But that doesn’t seem to be happening with Super League.

The Super League clubs seem to meet on a regular basis and they frequently overrule decisions that Elstone would apparently like to make.

For example, they overruled him on taking the Magic Weekend back to Liverpool, instead insisting it should go back to Newcastle.

More recently, on the subject of giving a dispensation to the Toronto Wolfpack, while he wanted to give them a 5 per cent addition to their salary cap, he was overruled by the other clubs.

And we recently have seen, in the Israel Folau affair, that Elstone has little or no ability to determine how clubs that are members of Super League should behave, or who they should recruit.

He made it absolutely clear that he felt that the Catalans shouldn’t have signed Folau, but he had no power to prevent them doing so, although on this occasion he was supported by the majority of the clubs.

The fact is, however, that if an organisation is going to employ someone on a very high salary to run its affairs, it should allow him to get on with it and not keep interfering or overturning his decisions.

There should be no need for constant meetings of clubs to consider every minor detail of the way the organisation runs. I would have thought that the whole idea of appointing a CEO and his support staff was to help the club officials to devote themselves to their clubs, while Elstone and his colleagues get on with running the Super League competition. Elstone would then succeed or fail on the strength of his own decision making and administrative skills.

As it happens, I agree with the clubs about going back to Newcastle with the Magic Weekend, while I agree with Elstone about recognising the special status of Toronto Wolfpack. There is no doubt in my mind that they should have been granted that 5 per cent dispensation for their salary cap, even though there is a strong argument to say that they brought the problem on themselves, at least to some extent. But surely we have to recognise that Toronto are a special case.

On the other hand, I disagree with him about Israel Folau. I think it’s wrong to single out someone who doesn’t have a criminal record in order to try to exclude him from playing in Super League, even if we don’t like his religious views.

And that brings us back to another problem with the way that Super League is organised.

The idea that clubs should be able to vote on measures that affect other clubs is an almost perfect example of a conflict of interest.

For example, it is clearly in the interests of Rugby League as a whole that Toronto Wolfpack are successful to the point at which they create a significant market for Rugby League in North America.

But from the point of view of most of the other eleven clubs, the Wolfpack are seen as a threat to their own future.

And that is hardly surprising. Every club director is duty bound to advance the interests of his own club to the exclusion of any other club. And the most prominent of those club interests is the desire not to suffer relegation. Every club’s ultimate fear is relegation from Super League.

And, given that each club is an individual shareholder in Super League, that ensures that if decisions are left to the clubs, there will be no long term strategic planning if those club directors decide that their clubs may be harmed.

Although Super League is reportedly searching for a major investor to buy a share in Super League, I can assert with some confidence that as long as the organisation retains its current ownership structure, it won’t be seen as a desirable investment target for the people with big bucks.

Who would want to invest in an organisation in which conflicts of interest almost guarantee that it will make no significant progress.

This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in League Express. Read Martyn Sadler’s ‘Talking Rugby League’ column every Monday in League Express.