MARTYN SADLER, the editor of League Express, presents the second in a series of articles about the competition structures he would like to see from 2022, to maximise Rugby League’s appeal to broadcasters and commercial partners.
In the first of this series of articles, which was published last week, I set out the desirable criteria for a league structure that could be offered to broadcasters who might be interested in covering Super League, the Challenge Cup and the Championship and League 1.
Essentially I suggested that the RFL and Super League should present a united front to broadcasters, that the proposed league structure should suggest an expanding sport and that the income from any broadcasting deals should be shared equally between the clubs within the different individual competitions.
In this second article of the series, I want to focus on Super League, starting with my proposals for the 2022 season, but then working backwards to 2021 as an interim season that would prepare the way for what would happen in 2022.
In putting this proposal together I have recognised that the clubs prefer a season that gives them at least 14 home matches in the first instance, although in an ideal world I would reduce that figure significantly. But I don’t see the point, in the short term at least, of proposing a structure that would not be accepted because of it not providing the number of fixtures wanted by the clubs, even if I think that desire on the part of the clubs is misguided.
The Start and End of the Season
I would propose a 35-week season that commences with the Challenge Cup on the third weekend of February and comes to a Grand Final climax on the second or third Saturday in October, depending on how the dates fall.
That means the first season under the new contract would open on the weekend of 19-20 February 2022 and it would end with the Super League Grand Final on Saturday 15 October 2022.
Why would it begin on the third weekend of February?
We should make a strategic decision to launch the season on the third weekend of February for two reasons.
- Most people accept that starting our competitions on the first weekend of February, as we do now, is to begin the season too early, when it is cold, dark and often wet or icy, with the consequent risk of matches being postponed.
- Although these dangers are still present to a slightly lesser extent two weeks later, there is one significant advantage in terms of promoting the start of the season. The main competition that Rugby League faces at that time of the year is rugby union’s Six Nations competition, which always begins on the first weekend of February and runs for two weeks initially, but does not operate on the third weekend of that month, therefore leaving a space that Rugby League could take advantage of in terms of national media coverage. As things stand, we are swamped by the other code when we kick off two weeks earlier on the same weekend as the launch of the Six Nations.
The Challenge Cup, as I will reveal in a subsequent article, would be operated initially on the basis of pools, with six weeks of matches, including three home and three away fixtures for each club that would enable them to sell as part of their offer of season tickets.
Details of how these pools would be constructed will be revealed in a subsequent piece, but in this article I want to focus on Super League.
If this structure were to be followed, the Super League season would commence on the final weekend of March, or the first weekend of April, depending on how the dates fall. In 2022 the Super League season would therefore begin on the weekend of Saturday 2 April.
Under this system it is significant that the start of the Super League season would coincide with the start of British Summer Time, which would surely be a massive PR positive. That is a time of the year when people really feel like coming out of their winter hibernation and Super League could exploit that feeling to its benefit.
But not only do I think that Super League should embrace British Summer Time, as it did in its very first season in 1996, when the first game was played in Paris on 29 March that year.
This would also mean that Toronto Wolfpack and any other North American clubs that might play in Super League would not have to play early Super League games in England for climatic reasons.
I believe that now is the time for Super League to expand the number of clubs in its competition and create a system of Conferences.
So in my model Super League would consist of 16 clubs that would be split into two Conferences, probably based on an east and west split.
The teams within each Conference would play each other home and away.
They would then play each team in the other Conference either at home or away.
That would give 22 rounds of fixtures altogether.
There would then be four weeks of play-offs that would have a format based broadly on the top-five format that was introduced in 2019.
Each Conference would have a top-four play-off as follows:
Week 1: Team 1 v Team 2 (described as the preliminary semi-finals)
Team 3 v Team 4 (described as the elimination semi-finals)
Week 2: Loser of preliminary semi-final v winner of elimination semi-final (described as the minor semi-finals) in each Conference.
Week 3: Winner of preliminary semi-final v winner of minor semi-final from the opposite Conference (described as the major semi-finals).
Week 4: Grand Final involving the winners of the two major semi-finals, to be played at Old Trafford, as now.
The advantage of this play-off format is that there would be no repeat fixtures before the Grand Final, unlike what can happen in our current top-five system, as we saw when Wigan played Salford twice in the Super League play-offs in 2019.
The Advantage of Conferences
We haven’t previously used the idea of Conferences in Rugby League, although they are common in other sports, particularly in North America.
The advantage of Conferences are that they can pave the way for the expansion of a competition in a situation in which every club will not play every other club at home and away.
In a UK context they would make Rugby League stand out as an innovative sport that is clearly looking to the future.
And they would have advantages in a commercial sense, given that each Conference could potentially have separate sponsors linked to it.
And broadcasting rights could potentially be sold separately for each Conference or for cross-Conference games, although this development, if it ever happened, would probably come further down the track.
Relegation from Super League
The relegated Super League club could be the one with the lowest number of points in either Conference, but a better solution might be to have a Million Pound Game between the two clubs that finish at the bottom in each Conference, playing that game in the second week of the play-offs.
We have seen from our experience with the Super 8s that the Million Pound Game was a big draw for TV viewers, and it would make sense to retain a version of that game. Broadcasters clearly want big games with big outcomes, and the Million Pound Game, despite its critics, certainly delivered that and attracted big audiences for Sky Sports.
The game could either be played at a neutral venue, or at the home of the bottom club with highest number of points or, if equal, the best points difference.
The 2021 Season
If we move to the system I have outlined for 2022, there would be significant implications for the 2021 as a transitional season that would be structured to facilitate the transition to the Conference system I have outlined.
I will outline how the 2021 season could be structured as part of a later article in this series of articles.
In my next article I will outline what I think should be the structure of the Championship and League 1 from 2022 in order to maximise their attractiveness for potential broadcasters and commercial partners.