A group of Rugby League supporters has written a letter to the RFL expressing their concern about the way the game is run and its perception among the wider public.
They have asked Totalrl.com to publish the contents of their letter and we are happy to do so, which we have done below.
We are Rugby League fans, passionate and loyal towards our sport. Between us it would be hard to even begin to calculate how many games we have collectively been to, how many miles we have collectively travelled and how much money we have collectively spent following this great sport of ours.
The aim of this letter is not to simply air our grievances but to challenge the people in charge of our game to answer some fundamental questions about the state of Rugby League in 2021. This is our challenge to you, to take this letter in the spirit that it is intended and respond to it with answers or proposed solutions.
What are the main issues that have prompted us to write? We believe they can be grouped into three categories:
• Commercial presentation and profile
Issue 1 – Commercial presentation
Sponsorship and Marketing – we are concerned that the sport continues to struggle to attract top tier sponsors or partners for its major events. There have been confident words expressed by people in the game about the commercial viability of the sport, yet the people in charge of attracting sponsorship were responsible for the 2012 deal with a sponsor who didn’t pay any money, and their successors are responsible for reportedly only managing a deal worth just over £1m a year (now extended to include the Challenge Cup). In contrast, the Rugby Union Premiership’s current deal is reported to be around £10m annually. This despite club Rugby League consistently attracting higher television audiences on a bigger broadcaster and despite Rugby League having a marquee end of season championship decider that is watched by a larger television audience.
Television coverage – we are of the opinion that the sport’s main television partner has too much influence over the game, and we do not believe that Rugby League is getting value for money from its main television deal. Rugby League is a mainstay of Sky’s weekend coverage for eight months a year, and the sport also provides Sky with important content in the summer months. Yet we believe that the finances involved in the Super League television contract do not reflect this.
If we estimate that the upcoming proposed Sky deal for Super League is around £30m per annum for around 80 games, that equates to no more than £375,000 per game. Some will say that Rugby League is a minority sport and is not in a position to haggle for anything better, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Sky are reportedly paying more per annum for the five-week long Hundred cricket competition (despite ten of those games, including the final, also being live on the BBC), whilst their deal for The Open Championship equates to one weekend of golf costing them the same as half a Super League season. Whilst these examples would indicate that Super League is relatively unimportant to Sky, another explanation could be that Sky do value Rugby League, but never have to truly prove it financially because they are never forced into competition for the rights.
In addition, we remain perplexed that Rugby League doesn’t have a nationally broadcast prime-time highlights show on a free-to-air channel. Why do fans who do not have pay-tv have to wait until late on Monday night for highlights of games? And why do fans outside of the North have to wait until Tuesday afternoon? Showing highlights of the big Thursday and Friday night games on a Monday night or Tuesday afternoon would be like football fans having to wait until Wednesday or Thursday to watch the weekend’s biggest games on Match of the Day. They wouldn’t stand for it, so why do we?
Branding – we believe that the branding of our sport’s main competition as Super League has had a detrimental effect on Rugby League’s abilities to retain a unique position in the UK sporting landscape. It has meant that the media and broadcasters now refer to our league competition (and therefore, at times, our sport) without using the word rugby, which has given Rugby Union a free pass in their attempts to colonise the name to their own advantage. And whilst Super League may have been a unique name for a competition in 1996 it is now also used by numerous sports such as Netball and Women’s Football. We have ended up in a situation where our main competition now has a name which doesn’t contain the word rugby and is also no longer unique.
We have the following questions:
• Do you believe that Rugby League is currently achieving its potential in terms of attracting sponsors into the game?
• Are you concerned that the sport is now reliant on a betting company for the sponsorship of both Super League and the Challenge Cup at a time when restrictions on such sponsorship may come into place in the near future?
• Do you believe that the television deals signed with Sky represent good value for money for the game?
• Do you believe that the sport has gone into television negotiations in a position of strength or in a position whereby it has simply acceded to Sky’s proposals? Has there been an open process to gauge interest in the Super League television rights elsewhere?
• Why are free-to-air highlights only shown in the small hours of Monday night in the North and then on Tuesday afternoons nationally?
• Do you still believe that the brand-name Super League is helping the sport to define itself as the premier Rugby League competition in the country? Has any consideration been made to changing the name to incorporate the word rugby?
Issue 2 – Structure
Competition structure – we believe that the constant changes in the structure of the league season have harmed the image and integrity of the sport. Since the move to a play-off system in 1998 we have had six different play-off formats. In addition, the removal and then re-introduction of promotion and relegation, the short-term policy of franchising, and the four-year concept of the Super / Middle 8s has meant that the league has looked amateurish in its thinking. Changes made and publicised as being widely supported throughout the game have then been abandoned within a few years on several occasions. The decision in 2019 to revert to a 12-team competition with a top five play-off meant that we ended up back where we began in 1998. Two decades of short-term initiatives and ideas led us exactly nowhere.
Salary Cap – whilst the salary cap has been increased (in addition to the introduction of the marquee rule) in recent years, it has not prevented some of our best players from leaving for the NRL. Whilst we cannot compete financially with Australian Rugby League, there are clubs in our game who could spend more than they are currently permitted to do, which would enable us to retain some of our best talent and also to increase the standards at the top of the game. We believe that the salary cap should be increased because we believe that it will be those clubs at the top of the game that will drive the future success of the sport, and not those who have consistently failed to compete despite artificial barriers being erected to allow them to do so.
Whilst some will see this as promoting a system of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, we would argue that the decisions to incorporate both a relatively low salary cap and a play-off system have meant that every club has been a ‘have’. In other words, the bulk of all clubs’ salary caps has been covered by the television deals whilst the bar set to reach the play-offs has allowed every club a chance at success. Yet despite this double attempt at achieving some artificial parity in our game, nearly every season we have ended up with the same end-result, with the same clubs at the top despite the limits imposed to curb any financial advantage. We believe that the clubs at the bottom have had ample opportunities to close the gap, and that the clubs that consistently set the standards should be allowed to spend more on retaining their elite players and increasing competition and standards at the top of the game.
We have the following questions:
• Why has the play-off format changed so often in little over two decades, when the initial top-five concept was not only the fairest but gave the greatest share of rewards to the most consistent sides over the regular season?
• Have the constant changes in the structure of the league season been influenced by television partners?
• Why are we not using the top-five system in 2021? The decision to revert to a top-six knock-out system in 2020 was understandable but was announced as a one-off. So why are we using it again in 2021 despite scheduling a 25-week regular season?
• Why are we allowing our best players to leave for the NRL when an increase in the salary cap would go some way to stopping it?
Issue 3 – Governance of the game
RFL-Super League – we remain confused as to which organisation is in charge of taking the game forward. The much-publicised RFL-Super League split in 2018 did not seem to resolve any issues, with the remit of advancing the commercial appeal of the sport having seemingly failed. The resignation of the Super League CEO on the eve of the 2021 season leads to questions being asked about how much power he had commensurate with his reportedly high salary, how much support he had from the clubs that appointed him, and whether the clubs are still committed to the split that they almost unanimously voted for three years ago.
We would like to know what the costs and benefits have been of the RFL-Super League split, as it seems like there are now two separate entities dealing with the marketing, finance and management of the sport. In a World Cup year it would be preferable for the game to speak with one united voice, with the main aim of England winning the tournament and providing the sport with the greatest shot in the arm possible. The scheduling of a physically demanding condensed 25-game regular season with a Grand Final only a fortnight before England’s World Cup opener leads us to doubt that this is happening.
Moving the goalposts – off the field, it appears that an inconsistent approach has been used when assessing obligations and criteria of clubs. It appears that clubs in what is traditionally still known as Lancashire met their ground obligations whilst some of those in Yorkshire (with notable exceptions) have faced less pressure to meet theirs. When the 2009-11 Super League licences were handed out, both Castleford and Wakefield were making future projections based on moving to new stadiums (according to the official Summary of Applications published at the time), which neither have done over a decade later. The warnings from the RFL at that time seemingly went nowhere, as did both clubs’ projections of moving to new grounds. Meanwhile St Helens and Salford (who were given similar warnings) met their obligations and moved to new improved grounds, at great expense.
To the west of the Pennines the Super League era has seen the deaths of Central Park, Knowsley Road, Naughton Park and Wilderspool, as Lancashire’s main clubs either pre-empted or met demands to modernise. Yet in 2021 we still see grounds to the east of the Pennines like Belle Vue and Wheldon Road failing to provide more than basic facilities, especially for away fans. Why did we end up with threats and demands only applying to one set of clubs?
Meanwhile, on the field the constant rule changes have meant that things that were part-and-parcel of the game in one year were then removed the next, with no real explanation as to their benefits. Soundbites such as: “Super League always welcomes changes that add excitement for our fans and showcase the unique qualities of our players” mean nothing when fans haven’t actually been consulted in the process. A sport which constantly feels that it needs to reinvent itself is subconsciously telling the world that it doesn’t believe in itself.
We have the following questions:
• Can clarification be given as to how the RFL and Super League clubs now interact on major issues in the game?
• How and when is the success or failure of the RFL-Super League split going to be measured? How are fans going to able to gauge whether the split was beneficial or detrimental to the sport?
• Did Super League and the clubs meet with the RFL and Shaun Wane before the decision was made to play a condensed 25-game regular season in a World Cup year?
• Why were demands for ground improvements and increased standards not met by several Yorkshire clubs when all Lancashire clubs met their obligations? What measures are being taken to ensure that top-flight grounds in Yorkshire are on a par with grounds in Lancashire?
• Why are there constant rule changes to the sport?
We hope that you take as much time answering our questions as we have put in to asking them. We want the best for the sport and we wish those in charge the best of luck in taking us into the future successfully. But, as fans of the game, we believe that we have the right to ask questions and hold those in charge accountable.
We look forward to hearing from you.