First time poster here, but long time lurker.
I have, for the most part, enjoyed perusing topics on this forum over the years, and had no desire to contribute…
So why post now?
With the emergence of North American teams, as well as other non-heartland clubs, the game has, in my opinion, a great opportunity for growth. Some don't see it that way, and are fearful of the possible implications of this for smaller heartland clubs. The game needs to address this and work out a strategy for expansion that doesn't comprise existing clubs. Too often advocates of expansion suggest that it should bring about some sort of Darwinian natural selection where "dead wood" heartland clubs are replaced. But that would be a mistake, as once those clubs go they may never come back, and this should therefore be avoided.
So with that in mind, I'd like to propose a scenario that could potentially be a solution to the issue.
In the case of TWP, the assumption is that they are chasing Super League in order to maximise their commercial opportunities. But will that necessarily be the case? Yes they'd see a sharp rise in travelling away fans at their home games. But what about TV revenue? It's been reported that they won't receive a cut of the Sky money if they join Super League. So would doing so enable them to secure a substantial TV deal with a North American broadcaster? Let's be honest, most of the top teams in Super League are relatively small towns that even in the UK are not that well known. Their brand value and marketability to a North American audience must be questionable.
It's also believed that other North American teams will want to follow TWP, New York and Ottawa and join the British system (especially if Perez has his way). Once there are enough of them, it's widely believed they'll eventually breakaway and form their own North American league (although this has been denied by Perez). Even if this were to happen, we're talking long term before it's even conceivable.
So let me get to the point of this post. My proposed scenario is a Northern Hemisphere expansion league that is separate to Super League. In my view, this league would operate best as a franchise system consisting of professional clubs in strategic locations with significant markets. A requirement of the clubs could be that they are a minimum distance away from other each other, or that they operate in markets of a minimum size. This would essentially mean that the league would consist mainly of large cities.
Why should it be separate to Super League? Not only has Super League broken away to do its own thing anyway, it simply cannot incorporate all expansion teams without jeopardising the position of some its current members. The numbers of teams in Super League are very unlikely to increase by more than a few, especially if it meant pieces of the money pie were reduced. Look at the rumours of Super League proposing a cap on the number of expansion teams joining - small minded self-interest that could inhibit growth of the game.
With a separate league consisting of expansion clubs, I believe Super League could rebrand itself as a strong Northern product and use its many local derbies as its USP. It could also keep promotion and relegation, which the powers that be seem to feel is important for creating sporting drama and a potential pathway for clubs in lower leagues. But for expansion clubs, promotion and relegation simply doesn't work in my opinion. Clubs starting from scratch have to be given time to develop their infrastructure, fans, sponsors, junior players etc. - potential investors are hardly going to tempted by a boom and bust system. Having well-funded expansion teams in a separate league also means that smaller heartland clubs in and around Super League can have no fear of being replaced.
So what could this Northern Hemisphere expansion league look like? Well, if we look at current teams in the British system that could fit the bill, as well as potential clubs that have been mooted in the recent past, here's an example:
Personally I'd like to see a French team in a city - perhaps one with history of RL e.g. Bordeaux or Lyon, a team in Wales and perhaps a team in Bristol. How about Perth?? If the NRL is too short sighted to take advantage of its own expansion opportunities, then this league could steal its thunder and market itself as a World League. Unlikely maybe, but it wouldn't be impossible if a team from Perth played its UK and North American away games in blocks (there is now a direct flight from London to Perth after all). New teams could feasibly pop up anywhere if there's a lucrative broadcast deal on offer.
Critics of this will say two separate leagues won't work as one will inevitably become financially superior to other and take all the best players from the other league. Clubs from the other league may even want to move over and join. True, you can't control market forces. One league would inevitably be more profitable than the other, especially if they had separate broadcast deals. But why couldn't both leagues be affiliated to the RFL with similar rules, for example on salary cap restrictions, quota spaces etc.? If the two leagues had their own domestic competitions, why not have a competition at the end the season, for example involving the top 4 teams of both leagues in play-offs resulting in a Grand Final. This could be a big event in the Rugby League calendar, something the game needs more of. The revenue this generated could be shared equally between the leagues, thereby helping to keep them as equally matched as possible.
Other critics of this will say an expansionist league would effectively be League 1 with a different name, which hasn't worked. But this would be different. Only teams who meet the franchise criteria with good business plans should be accepted. For example, having a stadium of a minimum size and standard could be one of the criterion. Money of course would be the driver, but I think the transatlantic element of the expansion League could be a USP that entices major broadcasters to stump up the cash. This would hopefully then entice new investors into the sport to start new expansion franchises.
Could this mean Super League, which would now officially be a M62 league, be left behind? I don't think so. It’s been a M62 sport since 1895 and survived, and it’s fiercely loyal fan base would likely ensure that it continues to do so. Plus, it could be argued that if a new expansion league was successful in attracting new fans to the sport, this would also be beneficial for Super League.
Wouldn’t this expansion league be a bit uneven to start with? For example, TWP vs Coventry is hardly going competitive. True, there would likely be some uneven scores in the first few years. But hopefully after 5-10 years of the TV revenue being equally distributed, this would help to solve this. Strong rules on quota spaces and salary cap restrictions would also, in an ideal world, help level the playing field. Although admittedly, whether or not this currently happens in Super League is debateable.
Some will still not be convinced that this could ever happen. But if Super League doesn't welcome expansion, and the RFL can't come up with a solution, it’s feasible that TWP and the other North American teams will get fed up and breakaway. They can't do it on their own though - they'll need at least 6-8 teams to go with them. And I would suggest 2 French teams, 2 London teams and a handful of teams from other large UK cities would be their best option for maximising potential TV revenue.
Whatever happens, it’s an interesting time in the game’s history. Let’s hope that by the end of it, the game as a whole is better off.