Robert Elstone, the Super League chief executive, sat down with the media on Monday to discuss various topics and issues within the competition. Here’s what he had to say.
Thoughts on the season so far.
RE: It’s been a really good Super League season. I put something out last week and said we couldn’t have scripted it better and we undoubtedly got that on Friday when four teams could have gone down, that was probably a lot down to good fortune. What we had done was set up a more straightforward fixture list the game really wanted and needed. We worked on the fixture list with Easter and Nou Camp and Magic. We’re now into play-offs which builds a story around that. In terms of changes we’ve made to fixture lists, I think they’ve paid off. I think we’ve had terrific drama at the bottom of the table and now the focus turns to the top. Overall, I’m pleased with what we’ve seen.
Concerns over Thursday night fixtures and late changes.
RE: Thursday nights continue to be an issue but Thursday nights work for Sky and the reality is they’re our most important partner. If we’re delivering for them on Thursday, if fans like to watch Thursday night rugby in front of TV sets or in the pub, then I think we need to accept we need to be delivering for Sky. We need to be positive about Thursdays. That’s not me in any way dismissing it and the challenge of travelling on a Thursday night.
In terms of late changes, it’s dialogue we’re having with Sky. I think what we’ve realised for 2020, we need to be scheduling the final round for the same time so there isn’t one game subject to a late change at four or five days notice which I don’t think is good enough. We need to keep working with Sky to make sure the disruption to fans is as little as possible.
If losing London is a blow to the Super League brand.
RE: I think not directly. We need London in Super League moving forward. I’m absolutely sure of that. But we need a vibrant, dynamic London playing to bigger attendances in a better facility in my view. That’s what we’ve got to build in London. It will take some investment, it will take some time, but is absolutely part of where we need to be in terms of Super League. Losing them right now, we are locked into a TV deal for two more years, we’ve just renewed with Betfred for two more years, losing London is not going to have an impact on that. If we’re sitting down with broadcasters going forward then what I would be hopeful of saying is London is part of our agenda and we hope and would encourage London to be a part of that.
What I hope they do is build on the momentum of 2019. If they can use that as a stepping stone to build and grow then that’s terrific. But equally, you only have to look at the resources in London, the attendances and sponsorship and third party money they generate isn’t huge and that’s always going to be a limiting factor so for London to prosper we have to do something about that.
If there’s a growing argument to expand Super League.
RE: It’s part of an ongoing debate that we do have and must have about the ultimate size and format of Super League. The reality is two more teams require central funding to compete in that league and at the moment we’re sharing out a pot of money between 12 clubs. To share that club among 14 clubs inevitably dilutes that and if you’re diluting that it’s not money being invested in players and development so that’s a challenge for us. Whether the new TV deal is part of an expansion, it’s something we absolutely should consider, but you expand on the basis those new clubs are adding commercial value to the competition. If they are, what you’re doing is growing enough revenue to fund it.
But I think one of the things we’ve seen this year is that there’s the player quality there to sustain 14 clubs. I think what we have seen is some assurances as far as that goes. Maybe this year we’ve seen that box being ticked regarding player resource, but commercially we still have to find the extra money to make 14 viable.
RE: If Toronto win the right to be promoted they have to meet minimum standards. We’re talking to the RFL about what they look like and are seeking a number of assurances from the RFL. If we get those, if Toronto win that game then they’re in. If they are in they won’t be taking the central distribution and that central pot will be shared amongst eleven clubs. We’re still in dialogue with the RFL and I think it’s important we get those assurances well before promotion is determined on the pitch. It’s a dialogue we probably started in July and we’re close to getting a straight line on that and where it is as a club, but what we can’t afford to be doing is making that decision once promotion and relegation is dealt with.
If Toulouse have provided the same information as Toronto.
RE: Toulouse will be asked to comply with minimum standards as per the RFL. But there are a number of different concerns relation to Toronto. Not a number, but some concerns we’re seeking answers on that we don’t feel we need to have from Toulouse. That’s not to say there’s any bias or anti-Toronto agenda, but I think the circumstances are different in a number of ways and therefore it’s beholden on Super League to address the concerns that we think are specific to Toronto.
On concerns over the length of the season.
RE: I would have a degree of sympathy with that. The calendar is too long. There were some serious looks at shortening it. There’s a feeling we needed to run with it for 2020 and have a more serious look at 2021. My own personal view is it is too many games and there was a certain fixture fatigue towards the back end of the season and we should take that out. Ultimately it is down to Super League and the clubs that believe in it that less is more and it’s more about quality than quantity and that the commercial impact will be a positive one. We still haven’t quite won that battle for enough clubs but it’s certainly something I’ll continue to push because I believe we’re playing too many games.
If loop fixtures will remain.
They will. With a 12-team competition we will be playing 29 fixtures and therefore there will be clubs playing three times plus indeed the Magic (Weekend). It isn’t ideal, there are other competitions with lopsided fixture lists. I’d love to be able to provide something that’s symmetrical and neat that works both in the number of games it produces and symmetry and simplicity. Unfortunately, we’re not in that position now but it is something I think we should work towards.
Changes planned for 2020.
We’re working really hard on fixture lists. I think the fixture list will be as attractive as it can. That’s around opening games, Easter and Magic. We’re very close to being able to announce where Magic will be. The good news is there’s some real competition to host it which means we’ll be able to strike a good commercial deal which is terrific. In terms of rule changes, there’s an RFL laws and rules committee where streamlining shot clocks in line with NRL is inevitable. The most exciting thing that is going on today is around Super League branding and rolling that out into our clubs which will give a new feel and look for Super League.
We have to continue to look at referees and match officiating and make sure it’s as good as it possibly can be. Personally, I watch a lot of NRL, I look at the two-referee system there and while it’s not perfect… I look at the way the ruck is policed, how the play the ball works and I think it’s good and better than it happens here. So I’m a big fan of second referees. Unfortunately, inside the game in a number of stakeholders, there isn’t enough support for it, but I think the key thing is if it isn’t second referee, it has to be something.
The one thing I hear against the second referee is there aren’t enough good first referees. What follows is a shrug of the shoulders. So what are we going to do about it? We’ve got to work with the RFL to deliver that, we’ve got to make it as good as it can be so I’m willing to work collaboratively with the RFL to improve it.
The harm of comments from fans and club officials.
It’s really not helpful and not going to work in our favour in attracting young people to become referees. We’ve talked about something that protects, elevates and generates some status behind referees. It is critical we get more good referees in, so constantly turning the spotlight on them and pointing out every mistake is not a good thing.