Ken Davy opens up on Super League’s future

Super League’s interim chief executive Ken Davy last week held a media conference to discuss the future of Rugby League’s premier competition in the northern hemisphere, with the focus on the proposed realignment of Super League with the RFL.

Here is the content of that discussion.

Q When will you begin discussions with the RFL about the proposed realignment of Super League with the governing body?

A Discussions with RFL will be starting in early July.

Q Do you expect the talks to last for days, weeks or months?

A It’s impossible to say with absolute certainty, but I’m working towards a late August expectation that we’ll get to a conclusion, but I don’t want to put an absolute timeline on it because that isn’t something we need to commit to. We shouldn’t put ourselves in a position of having to reach a decision by a particular date. I know that Simon Johnson and Ralph Rimmer are also keen to progress these discussions.

Q Did the events surrounding the England game accelerate this process? Did the clubs make a mistake by arranging fixtures on the same weekend as the international?

A The international has had no impact on the planning of these negotiations. The timing was in my plans from quite some time ago.
The Super League fixtures working group recommended a blank weekend for Super League over the international weekend. But the board decided that, with pressure on fixtures, there ought to be Super League fixtures that weekend. My preference would have been not to have them, but the board decided that they should be.
The clubs are going through enormous financial difficulties this year. While we are not unique in that, we are having to play games with limited fans and the early games behind closed doors have made it more difficult for the clubs in every respect. To have missed out with Super League fixtures would have been even worse for the clubs.
For England and the All Stars every player came from Super League. The clubs and Super League generally gave tremendous support to Shaun Wane and to Tim Sheens as well. It was a really good test and I’m sure that Shaun and the team will put on a really good show when we get to the World Cup. We all hope that the World Cup will take place this year, but it will be a very difficult decision, given the uncertainties around the Covid pandemic.

Q What do you expect to see from the proposed realignment with the RFL?

A It would be wrong to second-guess what the form of realignment might take. The important thing is that the whole game goes forward together.
There was extensive coverage of the game between England and the All Stars pre-match.

Q There is a suggestion that Super League wants to sell a package of ten live games and a highlights package to a terrestrial broadcaster. Where are we at with that proposal?

A It’s very early days on that. The Sky deal does permit us to have ten free-to-air matches next year and the year after. This is a real opportunity to widen the TV coverage of the sport. But we don’t know exactly how that will pan out. One of the things I envisaged was that the Challenge Cup will take place at the end of May next year. So there will be Challenge Cup games free to air on the BBC and after the Challenge Cup Final we now have the opportunity to have one game a fortnight going through to the play-offs on free to air, which is a very attractive proposition. Over time I think that will increase the number of Sky viewers, following on from some nice increases we have seen this year, so I’m encouraged by the way that is going.
There is certainly formal interest, but I will add no more than that.

Q Will promotion and relegation continue this year, and will the team that comes up next year be given an equal share of the Sky distribution

A I’ve not heard any suggestions that any of the current arrangements will change. We are in uncertain times with Covid-19 and everything that surrounds it and it would be foolish of me to give an absolute guarantee, but that is everyone’s understanding at the current time.

Q So is there a possibility that the number of teams in Super League could change next season?

A That is very unlikely

Q If the World Cup were postponed until next season, would Super League be amenable to shortening the season and ending it earlier to avoid clashing with the FIFA World Cup?

A That hasn’t been discussed and I have no idea what is likely to happen. If it were to be delayed a year I’m sure he Super League clubs would be committed to doing everything they can to assure a successful Rugby League World Cup.

Q When Robert Elstone left (as the Super League CEO), there were still some clubs that wanted to retain Super League as a separate entity. How have you managed to persuade those clubs that realignment is the right direction of travel?

A Realignment doesn’t mean losing the identity of Super League nor does it mean going back to an arrangement with the RFL that existed previously. We had a unanimous vote for the realignment discussions to proceed. Prior to that I was elected on the basis that my objective was to realign the two organisations. To that extent the clubs are supporting realignment with the RFL. We want to find a solution that works for the game as a whole, which will almost certainly involve compromise.

Q Now that the TV deal has been done, how have the negotiations gone for the distribution of some of that money to the RFL and the Championship clubs?

A I’m sure that will form part of the discussions we are going to have. The reality is that thee amount of money available has gone down significantly. That is bound to impact on the game as a whole. It can’t be avoided. I have made it clear that Super League as well as the game in general gains from the existence of the Championship and League 1. We go into the discussions with an open mind.
What is also clear is that the Super League clubs have massive financial commitments to the contracts of players. The owners of the clubs already make significant financial contributions to their clubs and that is a reality we have to live with.

Q Jermaine McGillvary has made some public comments about the game going backwards. Do you agree with his views?

A Jerry is reflecting a message that has been coming out loud and clear from many within Super League and other parts of the game. One reason why I’m in this job is that there is a determination within the game to put things right.
We have a fantastic game, with tremendously loyal supporters and good support from the media.
But the reality is that we are not as big a game as we should be and deserve to be. That’s something we all want to see improve.

Q Does it hurt you to see Jermaine making comments like that?

A Good heavens, no! Many people would agree with him. I’m not disagreeing with him. The game has not moved forward as it should and if anything it has fallen back somewhat, unjustifiably so, which is why the realignment with the RFL and the World Cup are so important. We can’t just sit on our hands, we have to move forward. The people who back the Super League clubs are putting their heart and soul into it.

Q If the realignment talks go successfully, does that mean that you will not be replaced as Chairman of Super League?

A I wouldn’t want to second-guess the outcome of the negotiations. But that has to be a realistic possibility.

Q If the World Cup is postponed, would Super League support England playing some fixtures of some kind later this year?

A That’s an interesting question and I don’t know the answer to it. The problem will be at the end of the year, if there’s an opportunity for a slightly longer rest period for the players, I think that may be the option most people would choose. But I would certainly be interested in supporting an England match.

Q How much of a role can Super League play in helping the game as a whole to develop?

A Super League has the opportunity and the responsibility to help develop the game, which is why the Super League board and the owners devote so much to the game. It’s the clubs at the top of the game that encourage young people to take up the game.
The first step is once again to have a unified game, which is what we hope will emerge from realignment. We can then use that a launch pad to promote the game and its personalities.
Super League and its clubs are at the heart of so many communities.

Q Three years ago the Super League clubs broke away from the RFL. Have attitudes towards the RFL now softened?

A There’s a recognition that together we can be stronger and that you can take the best of Super League and the best of RFL and move forward. You don’t have to destroy what already exists so that we can move forward with a stronger foundation.

Q It seems quite a dramatic U-turn.

A The vote was in 2017 and I wouldn’t describe it as a U-turn. At the time there was a lot of dissatisfaction among the Super League clubs, both about the direction of travel and the way the RFL was being managed. That’s why Super League voted to take control of the elements of the game that it could control.
The feeling now, however, is that there are more opportunities for Super League in a realigned working relationship with the RFL. That is what I believe personally.

Q Clubs will have taken a massive financial hit in the last couple of years. How can the clubs replace those revenues?

A The short answer is that it has to be filled by the owners. There was an example from Hull, where Adam Pearson said that he had to subsidise his club by about £750,000. That’s the commitment that the leaders of Super League are demonstrating in these very difficult times. It is incredibly difficult to finance a Rugby League club. You have ongoing commitments to your players and staff and you can’t furlough them, which you are not generating revenue from your stadium. The lower divisions tend not to have long term contracts, with part-time players. The Super League clubs are the ones feeling the pain and that is the harsh reality.

Q Is there pressure for the salary cap to be reduced?

A That has not been suggested at this stage. It would probably be the last thing on the agenda, because we are all keen to keep the quality of Super League at the level it’s at. We are all fighting to put on a super spectacle for the fans.

Q Government money was contingent on change. Where do you see that change coming from and when will it arrive?

A I don’t think it’s correct to say that it was contingent on change. But we are trying to bring about change. I’m sure the realignment will be welcomed by everyone in the sport and external forces such as government. I believe it will be better for everybody.

Q Is an independent commission being discussed?

A Lots of alternative suggestions are being made. We have an independent board in the RFL. One of the things I have outlined to the Super League clubs is a smaller board and more independence.

Q If private equity finance also part of the agenda?

A The question of external funding is a fair one. It’s common knowledge that we turned down a private equity proposal. Private equity is not necessarily the solution. I have had a lot of experience with private equity and their technique is to get in, get on and get out. You would have no idea who would be owning or running Super League in five or six years’ time, because they could do anything with it if you give them the control they are looking for. They normally want more than 50% control. But there are real opportunities to bring external finance into the game, and over time that will almost certainly happen, but not at the cost of giving the game away.

Q If Toulouse qualify for promotion, is there any doubt about them being admitted into Super League?

A I’ve not heard any discussions on that front either in Super League or elsewhere. It’s not something I can really comment on.

Q If the World Cup is postponed this year, given that Old Trafford is booked for late November, does that give you the opportunity to extend the season?

A That’s an interesting point but not one that I’ve heard suggested. If the World Cup doesn’t go ahead it would be sensible to look at what options are available. The problem would be financial, as well as player welfare.

Q The RFL has been criticised recently for a number of things. What makes you think the RFL will run things better now than they were doing previously?

A Just because an organisation has been criticised doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong. The RFL has changed much more significantly in its governance and how it’s run. It’s not perfect and it gets criticised. Things like the timing of a match to miss newspaper deadlines is disappointing, but the RFL is a very different structure and governance to that which applied previously.

Q You read Adam Pearson’s comments about the 35% reduction in central funding next year. Can you confirm that figure?

A I read that figure, but I didn’t check it as a matter of detail. It may not be precisely correct, but it’s certainly in the right ball park.

Q Would you agree that we need to economise by cutting down the number of overseas players, perhaps by splitting the salary cap into an amount payable for domestic and for overseas players?

A In one sense you’re pushing at an open door in relation to my personal views. However, I’m not in a position to speculate on how best we will be able to cut our cloth. But I can say that we can’t rely on the largesse of clubs’ owners indefinitely. As Adam pointed out, everyone has a limit. That brings the importance of the realignment discussions into stark profile.
The new Sky contract will give us TV quality production at every match next year and we will be able to stream it to fans. It has the potential to be an additional source of revenue. We will be able to promote the game more widely and build on our strengths.

Q Is there a danger, as Adam Pearson suggested, that the game could revert to being part-time?

A I don’t believe there is any danger of that. I am an optimist by nature. The strength of the game and its character make me certain it will emerge from the Covid difficulties stronger. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I’m sure that will be the reality for Super League. I believe the TV negotiations we will be having in two years’ time will show that we are in a stronger position.

Q We started Super League in 1996 with twelve clubs, and we still have twelve clubs in 2021. Should you commission experts to recommend the best structure for future growth?

A You could well be right. I’m not sure it needs outside consultants looking at it. We have had various structures and lots of changes. There are changes we could make to the format that might be beneficial. But stage one is a realignment with the RFL and stage two is a private finance and competition structure.

Q Do you still believe in relegation, given the damage it can do to clubs?

A When we (Huddersfield) were relegated, deciding to carry on was a very difficult decision. Relegation is not a good position to be in, although relegation and promotion have some real positives. The arguments are probably finely balanced and we will have to see what finally emerges.

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