On the eve of the Championship season, it’s hard to think of a time when the competition has ever been more relevant.
The Super 8s concept, however much it does split opinion, has helped increase the profile of the second tier. The Qualifiers has provided the clubs who have made the ‘middle eight’ more exposure, and in Leigh’s case, it provided them with a pathway back to Super League.
Promotion and relegation is another subject of debate, but commercially it has worked in the Championship’s favour.
With London, Bradford and newly-relegated Hull Kingston Rovers in the mix, the second-tier has a presence in three major cities. Add Sheffield to that group, albeit from a Wakefield base this year, and then French outfit Toulouse, the Championship is more commercially appealing than ever to both established and untapped markets.
On the field, the product is at an all-time high too. The increase in central distribution has allowed clubs to invest more into their playing roster. Four clubs will start the season full-time and even the smaller clubs like Swinton have started increasing their profile with off-field staff. Wealthy backers help, of course, with Leigh’s success largely hindering on the investment from owner Derek Beaumont, but there’s more of an incentive to financially support clubs now than in the past.
But for all the improvements, there is currently a cap on the competition’s growth due to a lack of television coverage.
Currently, SKY has the rights, but, excluding the Summer Bash weekend, they haven’t shown a regular Championship fixture since taking the rights back from Premier Sports. In an industry where television exposure is such a huge attraction to businesses, it will have negative effects on the competition’s commercial appeal.
The broadcasting giants have not revealed any plans for that to change this season, and with the rights remaining with SKY until 2021, the competition is at risk of reaching its commercial peak.
The issue has not gone unnoticed by the governing body. Ralph Rimmer, the chief operating officer of the Rugby Football League, accepts that there is a lack of televised games, but believes the onus is on the teams to force SKY’s hand with another compelling campaign.
“We haven’t got enough on,” Rimmer admitted.
“I think the answer is to make it irresistible, and I think we’re doing that. Toronto’s arrival in League 1 provides regular coverage on Premier Sports and every team will appear next year, which is big.
“As far as Championship goes, many will have noted SKY’s coverage was pretty focused on the Qualifiers last year. It provided them with probably the best story of the Super 8s, the most engrossing story, it had everyone on the edge of their seat. That’s what you have to do with broadcasters, you have to show them what the competition produces and make them have to cover it.
“We have some decent coverage in the Qualifiers and in the Summer Bash. The evening game between Leigh and Bradford last year was pulsating and had the roof coming off the stadium, I know speaking to SKY officials that they thought it was completely absorbing.
“We’ve got to be completely irresistible and that’s what we’re trying to do. That’s the next step, show them that the product is irresistible and they’ll move their emphasis.”
Nevertheless, Rimmer insists that the current growth of the competition can only help its cause. With more exciting narratives set to play out in the competition, all signs suggest that the Championship can be a star attraction in the domestic season once again.
“Last year, if I’m honest, I thought the Championship was a standout competition,” Rimmer said.
“What it provided was a narrative nobody expected it to provide, and it’s given the Championship more relevance. Leigh’s story has helped, and surprisingly to many Leigh won their way through without the use of the Million Pound Game. It has more relevance.
“The whole idea with the Super 8s was that every minute mattered. If you get that right, you’re producing more games of big jeopardy. We looked through the calendar just with our events hat on and it was big game after big game that all needed to be resourced and looked after properly.
“This year we welcome two more big clubs in Hull Kingston Rovers and Toulouse. I know Hull Kingston Rovers might not be thrilled to be in the competition, but they’ll be striving to achieve what Leigh did last year.
“It’s another big club, it’s a big competition, it deserves big clubs. It’s all to play for.”