Elstone talks: Super League Nines, marquee allowances, reserve grade … and Brexit

On Wednesday, Super League chief executive Robert Elstone met with the media to look ahead to the start of the new season, which is now only than a fortnight away. Here are the main issues covered – from the prospect of Nines rugby all the way to the Brexit implications on Catalans Dragons.

On Gareth Widdop’s arrival in 2020:
“It’s great news. I’m excited as a fan to see the 24 players in room for the launch next week, and to think Gareth will be in that room next year is terrific. I’ve gone on record and said when Warrington announced Blake Austin, I said to Karl (Fitzpatrick) that it was the best news since being in job – this is as good. Our game is about players and superstars and to get someone of his quality in Super League is fantastic.”

On the marquee allowance raising from two to three in the coming years:
“There have been discussions. A number of clubs have talked about it and it’s on the agenda. Whether it’s ratified by all clubs – some may have different views – we’ll see, but it is on the agenda and clubs are aware of it.”

Whether he would like to see more clubs use the marquee ruling:
“Absolutely. From where I’m sitting, high-quality marquee players across the board gives us more assets to work with. Six teams are 12-1 or less to win the Grand Final this year, but if you lift marquee rulings you may have three or four. You have to work out the pros and cons of doing it. That’s for Super League to decide.”

On the latest discussions with Sky about the broadcast deal:
“There’s regular dialogue about how we can deliver value for money with Sky. We’ve got to make sure Sky think this is the best investment they’ve ever made. Those discussions haven’t started yet, though. We have some fantastic assets of heritage, clubs and players. If we can package those assets in the right way, I think we’ll be a hugely attractive proposition for a broadcast partner.”

On the financial situation at Salford Red Devils:
Salford are scheduled to kick off in two weeks and we’re confident they’ll be able to do that. There’s a rebuilding job and a growth job to be done. The game has an eye on them in a positive sense but we’re confident that we’ll not only get to the start line, but fulfil the season and start to turn things around and grow.

Whether Super League will interfere with the Catalans-Challenge Cup situation:
No, we won’t be involved. It’s a matter between Catalans and the RFL.

On the relationship between Super League and the RFL:
“Super League has a discreet team who commercialise and market Super League assets. It’s a mix of media, marketing and commercial and it’s a team we need to grow. We’ll have our own autonomy with finance and things like that, but the focus is as exclusive as it possibly can be.”

On how Brexit could impact Catalans’ position in the game:
“I know the Premier League considered it in three dimensions; one was a lot of clubs have match day staff working from all parts of Europe and it may make it more difficult to hire them. The second was the general economic impact and the third was free movement of players in and out of Europe. The Premier League has got to where it is by having very little restriction on getting the best players in the world to come to the Premier League. Whether it has an impact on players between here and France.. the honest answer is that I don’t know.”

An RFL spokesman added: “There’s a lot of work going on with that, and it’s an example of Super League and the RFL working together.”

On older generations fearing they’ll be left behind with Elstone’s vision for a younger market:
Lee Hicken, who produced the Leeds film As Good As It Gets and is working with Super League in 2019, said: “We’re looking to add a young audience rather than replace them. I’ve had this conversation about millennials versus everyone else; a lot of the time, things are painted as mutually exclusive and I don’t think they are. I use the example of film,we had around 3,000 cinema tickets sold that week – but the age range in the cinema was a total mix. The direction we’re going in, in terms of the visuals and things like that, is that I can’t see why any of the existing fans should have a problem with what we’re doing if we’re making the game looking better.”

On reserve grade and whether Super League will take control of it:
“The honest answer is that we’ve got an 18-month focus on getting the best broadcast deal; creating fantastic youth development pathways is not going to impact in that window. But for the long-term prosperity of the sport, we need to get more people playing and more to the start line as a professional Super League player. Everyone should be keen to ensure we do that as well as we can. The reserves debate is a complex one; the equivalent in football, the under-23s, has had huge investment and I’m still not certain it’s making a huge difference. It’s complicated and reserves may be part of the solution, it may not. But the game as a whole needs to address that.”

On the possibility of more ‘events’ in the calendar:
“There’s nothing imminent in the pipeline but we’re conscious there’s a potential plateauing of events after Magic in June and July before the play-offs. There’s a window there where there isn’t a real spike, so we’re looking at things we can do to create a few spikes. We had some serious talks about a Nines tournament for January 2019, and that fell away due to a little bit of short notice and funding. But we’re talking to that same promoter about Nines for January 2020. That’s early days though and there should be no expectation that will happen.”

Whether Super League would work with Matchroom on a concept like Nines:
“I’m willing to work with anyone who can add some value. The game needs to embrace anything that takes us to where we want to be.”