League Express editor MARTYN SADLER presents the fourth in his series setting out his proposals for a league structure designed to maximise Rugby League’s appeal to broadcasters, as well as supporters and commercial partners, from the 2022 season.
This is the fourth article in a series of articles designed to set out a structure for the professional and semi-professional Rugby League game in the Northern Hemisphere that would give it the best chance of gaining profitable broadcasting deals for all levels of the game while giving Rugby League the opportunity to present itself as a forward looking sport that is looking to expand into new areas, both of the United Kingdom and beyond.
In the first article I set out some general strategic principles that should underlie a bid for a new broadcasting contract.
In the second article I set out a strucure for Super League that would accord with those principles to create a competition that would be most likely to generate interest from broadcasters and maximise opportunities for commercial success.
In the third article I focused on the Championship and League 1.
In this article I will focus on the Challenge Cup, and how the oldest competition in Rugby League can recover at least some of its former glories.
The Challenge Cup
The Super League, Championship and League 1 competitions under the structure I have outlined so far would take up 26 of the 35 weeks of the season.
The other nine weeks would be taken up by the Challenge Cup, which requires significant changes if it is to survive and prosper.
In my view the major problem with the Challenge Cup is twofold.
1 Clubs can’t sell their games as part of their season-ticket package
2 The games are sporadic, not allowing the competition to build up momentum.
Both these factors give rise to poor attendances, which is particularly disappointing given that the Challenge Cup is currently broadcast by the BBC to a potentially vast audience, who all too often see largely empty terraces on their screens.
The solution is to have pools in the early stages of the Challenge Cup, before the competition reverts to a knockout format at the quarter-final stages.
I would therefore propose eight pools of four clubs, two Super League clubs and two Championship clubs in each pool, with each club playing home and away fixtures against the other clubs in its pool, giving six pool fixtures in total.
These fixtures would be played in the third and fourth weekends of February, and the first four weekends of March, taking us up to British Summer Time, when the Super League and Championship competitions would begin.
How would the Challenge Cup pools be made up?
Given the Super League and Championship structure that I have outlined above, there would be four Conferences of eight clubs each, two in Super League and two in the Championship, and therefore the obvious way to create the Challenge Cup pools is to have a Challenge Cup draw with one club from each Conference being drawn in each of the eight pools.
The Cup draw could be made at any time after the end of the previous season, once we know how the Super League and Championship Conferences will be made up.
This structure would overcome the two difficulties I have identified with the Challenge Cup.
It would allow clubs to add Cup games to their season tickets and it would give six solid weeks of Challenge Cup action at the start of the season, which would be a great buildup to the Super League and Championship competitions.
The pool rounds in this structure would be played in the last two weeks of February and the four weeks of March. I would also suggest that all the Challenge Cup matches should be played in Europe, with any North American clubs committing themselves to playing their ‘home’ games in England when it is too cold to play matches in Canada and New York.
But with the Super League and Championship both then starting at the end of March or the start of April, there would be no need for any North American teams to play ‘home’ games away from home, other than in the Challenge Cup.
Challenge Cup knockout stages
The top team from each pool would go through to the Challenge Cup quarter-finals.
The question then is whether we should allow clubs a home advantage in the quarter-finals or whether we should adopt a more imaginative solution to draw big crowds.
I would suggest that this stage of the competition should become the new Magic Weekend, possibly in Newcastle, with four games being played on one day. I think it would be a great event, hopefully a sellout, with every match being a sudden-death game.
On the other hand, if there was no venue available to stage four matches on one day, then we could organise two double headers at stadiums that would be available, with double headers at either side of the Pennines at venues such as Headingley, the Totally Wicked Stadium or the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
The semi-final would also be a double header played at a venue such as Bolton (as last year) or Sheffield or somewhere with a similar capacity.
The 1895 Cup would be retained, but only for League 1 clubs, again with a pool system of three clubs per pool, which could be selected by an open draw, with each club having one home and one away fixture.
The start of the 1895 Cup would take place three weeks later than the start of the Challenge Cup, as only three weeks would be needed for the pool stages of the competition. The semi-finals could be a double header held at an appropriate location. The final could perhaps be held at the Challenge Cup semi-final venue or at Wembley, if that was thought appropriate.
Why start the season in the third week of February?
Because the structure I have outlined, with 35 weeks of matches, fits into that starting point if we want a Grand Final on the second or third Saturday of October.
But an additional advantage is that it means we wouldn’t start our season on the same weekend that rugby union’s Six Nations competition kicks off.
In fact the Six Nations always begins on the first weekend of February and the games are then played in weeks 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7 from that point onwards. They never play on the third weekend of February, which would therefore be a great weekend for the opening weekend of the Rugby League season.
The BBC may even be interested in broadcasting one of the opening games of the Challenge Cup on that weekend, given that they won’t have any Six Nations games to televise on that Saturday.
That would really get the season off to a strong start. And of course the Challenge Cup pool games would also be open to Sky or any other broadcaster and could be sold as a distinct package.
The 2022 Season – Proposed Timetable
So let’s illustrate what all this might mean for a full season of club fixtures.
The 2022 season could pan out something like this.
19-20 February: Start of Challenge Cup (6 weekends)
12-13 March: Start of 1895 Cup (3 weekends)
2-3 April: Start of Super League, Championship and League 1 home and away rounds.
16-17 April: Easter weekend derby fixtures (Round 3)
21-22 May: Challenge Cup Quarter Finals (Magic Weekend) & 1895 Cup Semi-Finals
4-5 June: Challenge Cup Semi-Finals; Full Round of Championship & League 1 Fixtures
2-3 July: Challenge Cup Final & 1895 Cup Final at Wembley
10-11 September: Final Round of Championship and League 1 Fixtures (Round 22)
17-18 September: Final Round of Super League Fixtures (Round 22); Opening weekend of playoff matches for Championship and League 1
24-25 September: Opening weekend of Super League playoff matches; second round of Championship & League 1 playoffs; Million Pound Game to determine which club is relegated from the Championship
1-2 October: Second round of Super League play-offs; third round of Championship & League 1 playoffs; Super League Million Pound Game to determine relegated club
8-9 October: Third round of Super League playoffs; Championship & League 1 Grand Finals as double header
15 October: Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford
I have tried to produce a league and Cup fixture that would in my view have a strong chance of enhancing Rugby League’s profile while also enhancing its commercial appeal to potential broadcasters.
The biggest objection is likely to come from the Super League clubs, who might object to sharing the income from broadcasters among 16 clubs.
If so, that would be a short sighted objection. By 2022 it is quite possible that there will be three overseas clubs – Catalans, Toronto and Toulouse – in Super League. That would mean that a competition with only nine English clubs would have a very limited appeal.
But a competition with 13 English clubs and three from overseas would be a far more attractive proposition.
I have no doubt that the forthcoming TV negotiations are the most crucial in the history of British Rugby League. I’m not saying that my proposal is the only possible one. But if it’s not, I would like to see a better one.