COLUMN: Is ‘Big City Rugby League’ where the future of the sport lies?

The news this week that cities such as Newcastle, Coventry and Bristol are interested in acquiring existing Super League franchises may have caught a few people by surprise.

After all, this is big news. It’s three major cities in England with population figures in and around the 300,000 mark – Bristol’s is well in excess of 400,000, though – who would be tentatively interested in hosting Super League rugby.

But as always, there is a catch. They’re not interested in starting from the bottom – despite Coventry Bears having a presence in the league structure already. They want to go straight into Super League if they host a team.

So that means for it to happen, someone has to move their club (or their franchise) out of the area they currently play in. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel like as appealing a prospect anymore. Or does it?

There are some clubs who, behind the scenes, are alert to the idea and are aware it is there as a realistic proposition should they become disillusioned with the town or area they play in at the present time. But this is an issue which goes beyond one club or one chairman – it’s a dilemma which could potentially take the sport into a new era, you feel.

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Although rugby league is rightly proud of its roots in the heartlands of northern England, the honest fact is that the sport does not have enough of a presence in the big cities of England. At present, only a handful host Super League rugby including Leeds and Hull. In contrast, 10 of the 12 clubs playing in rugby union’s Premiership are based in cities (only Sale and Northampton are the exceptions).

There is Bradford, another city-based side, as well as London, in the league below. But at the elite level, rugby league just feels like it’s lacking enough of a big city presence to reach out to thousands, if not more, new fans.

After all, the game is desperate for new fans and, as we’ve seen in the opening weeks of the new season, we have one hell of a product we can market to the masses if it’s done correctly. For example, just hand out DVDs of Castleford’s recent performances to anyone looking to take in a game of rugby league. They probably won’t be disappointed.

On a wider scale, it’s an interesting dilemma for the sport to ponder over during the next couple of years as plans step up for the World Cup in this country in five years’ time.

But at club level, it’s probably likely to provide even greater a decision to make for some. Nobody wants to see areas steeped in rugby league history lose its presence. But to the owners of the clubs perhaps struggling to get by, could the lure of taking their Super League team to Bristol or Newcastle become too great a pull to resist?

Getting into cities such as those mentioned above is something which could take the sport to the next level. But the game has to weigh up whether it wants to walk away from over a century of history in some of the sport’s proudest heartlands at the expense of doing so. It will be a difficult balance to get right.