League Express editor MARTYN SADLER begins a series of articles that looks ahead to Rugby League’s new broadcasting deal.
He considers how Super League and the RFL could and should create a competition structure that would have the potential to maximise the benefits from its partnership with broadcasters from 2022 onwards.
He has already presented a version of this proposal to the RFL and to some Super League clubs.
Creating a valuable league structure
The new broadcasting deal (or deals) for both Super League and the Championship competitions will commence, as things stand, in 2022.
Although most people within the game would expect Sky Sports to acquire broadcasting rights for Super League, if not also for the Championship, that outcome can’t be taken for granted, and nor can we be sure what Sky or any other media company will pay for Rugby League’s broadcasting rights from that date.
Given the way that the coverage of professional sport is changing rapidly, with streaming of matches now becoming so important in all the football codes, there may be other operators that would be interested in bidding either for the whole or part of the game’s broadcasting rights, both at home and abroad.
The RFL and Super League should therefore be planning a strategy now to maximise the game’s earnings, for Super League clubs, the RFL and the clubs outside Super League, from 2022 onwards.
The first part of that strategy must be to decide on the competition structure, not just for Super League but also for the Championship and for League 1, so that there is a competitive hierarchy in Rugby League for the full-time and semi-professional game.
The league structure will play a key part in enhancing Rugby League’s appeal, but it has to be accompanied by creative marketing and promotion of the game if we are to maximise its value.
Many years ago I was a university lecturer in business organisation and finance, and one of the key principles I was always clear about was that an organisation can succeed if its structure is sub-optimal, but success comes much easier if the underlying structure is the best possible.
In this article I want to focus purely on the best potential structure of the competitions, both for Super League and the semi-professional leagues below Super League, to illustrate how the league structure can play a part in generating a broadcasting deal that will satisfy both Super League clubs, the RFL and non-Super League clubs from 2022 onwards.
If the RFL and Super League are to negotiate profitable broadcasting deals, it will be a clear advantage if they can demonstrate six key principles to any potential broadcasting partners.
- The proposals have to show that all our competitions are vibrant, competitive and expanding, and are capable of attracting growing audiences, both geographically and in terms of the number of people attending matches and viewers watching the game on television.
- The RFL and Super League should show that they are adopting a unified stance in the negotiations, with neither party, Super League and the RFL, wanting to subvert the other and both of them having as their priority the aim of benefiting not just themselves, but the game as a whole.
- That implies that all broadcasting income should be shared equally between clubs at each level of the game. The current situation, whereby some overseas clubs don’t share in the broadcasting income, is ultimately unfair and may even be bordering on illegality. If this policy continues to be pursued it is likely to lead to litigation in the long run.
- Both bodies should show that they are committed to expanding their media footprint and in particular they have clear plans for expanding the number of potential viewers. Any suggestion that they are simply appealing to their established audience is likely not to impress any potential partners.
- They should therefore show that there are clear plans for expanding the number of clubs in our major competitions to widen our coverage both in the UK and beyond. A growing game is likely to be received far more sympathetically by broadcasters than a game that is either static or even showing a declining number of clubs in membership of the RFL.
- Both bodies should seek to eliminate any situation in which clubs play each other more than twice in the league competition’s regular season. And the length of the season should be reduced if possible on the basis that a shorter league season leads to higher quality, and therefore gives rise to a more pleasing TV spectacle. Ideally I should like to see a significant shortening of the season, but I recognise that the clubs themselves are unlikely to take that on board to any significant degree, at least in the short term.
In the second article in this series I will set out a league structure for Super League that I think would go a long way to satisfying these criteria while maximising the potential income from broadcasting. In subsequent articles I will cover the Championship and League 1 and the Challenge Cup, and I will suggest how the game’s oldest competition can recover some of its former glory.