It rarely fails to deliver top-notch entertainment and it helps raise the profile of the Championship with much-needed TV coverage too, so why is the future of the Summer Bash so insecure?
It has hosted brutal battles, breathtaking comebacks and off-field controversy – and the Summer Bash will be back in Blackpool this May.
From the Battle of Bloomfield Road between Leigh and Featherstone in 2015 – which saw four yellow cards, one red and a host of bust-ups – to unsavoury post-match incidents after the Centurions against Toronto last year, the event has rarely, if ever been dull.
There have been some remarkable matches, including thrilling comebacks from Halifax against Featherstone last year and Rochdale Hornets versus local rivals Oldham in 2017.
Attendances for the event also rose for the first three years, from 15,381 in the inaugural Bash in 2015 to 15,912 and then 16,444 in 2017.
But last season that fell dramatically to 11,805, although the clubs involved at this level can have a huge effect on travelling support. With Widnes, Bradford and York added to this season’s Blackpool trip at the expense of London, there’s every chance that a new record could be set. And supporters that have been in past years almost universally speak in glowing terms of their weekends away.
But the event still hasn’t been without its detractors. This year it took longer than usual to confirm the Bash will be televised by Sky Sports, which drew criticism from some within the Championship.
There were also calls for the venue to be changed, with Bradford, Newcastle and Doncaster under consideration before Bloomfield Road was chosen again.
So the Bash is back – and what do those involved with it think of the Championship’s version of Magic Weekend?
Bradford Bulls coach John Kear has experience of both.
“I like the Summer Bash,” Kear tells Rugby League World.
“It’s a great day out for the fans – we’re a sport, but we’re also in the entertainment industry. Anything that can give us a feel-good factor and an occasion has got to be a good thing for us.
“What I’m not as sure about is that we maximise the opportunity from the Summer Bash as a concept and an event.
“There have been some great games in the Summer Bashes down the years, a lot of them featuring top teams. They have a big game feel about them, what we need to do is generate that feeling throughout the whole weekend.
“It’s the same with Magic really – you always have some stellar games, and then others where you sense that the crowd is having a bit of downtime. I don’t think they market it well enough to maximise the potential of each occasion.
“The same is true when Championship matches are on TV. For me, when games are televised it should have a ‘Songs of Praise’ effect.
“What I mean by that is that the church is always packed out when ‘Songs of Praise’ go there because the TV cameras are present. It shouldn’t have a negative effect on attendances, everyone should want to be part of an occasion.
“These matches mean a lot to the players. It’s like anyone in their job, you want to be recognised. It’s a very public platform when you’re on national TV and it allows you to strut your stuff.”
That is something that Kear’s former fullback Gregg McNally certainly endorses. Now back at Leigh, the Cumbrian has fond memories of Summer Bashes and understands its importance to players not used to playing on bigger stages.
“As a player it’s something I look forward to,” McNally explains.
“They usually pick the big matches for that weekend – we’ve played Featherstone when we were rivals with them and then Bradford the following year. It’s something the lads look forward to, a new experience at a ground you wouldn’t normally play at, and it’s on Sky at a time when we don’t get many matches on there. It’s good for all the lads in that sense.
“If you’re a part-time lad who has got aspirations to go to the next level and possibly move to a better club, it puts you in the shop window. There are always Super League clubs watching these matches because there are often dual reg players playing, and you never know what might come out of playing well. It’s like the Challenge Cup, it’s good exposure for players at this level.”
One issue that has been raised by influential Championship figures is whether more can be made not just of the Summer Bash, but the competition’s whole commercial portfolio, covering the 1895 Cup and leagues.
One of those officials is Swinton chairman Andy Mazey, who says the clubs can take a collective responsibility to improve events such as the Bash.
“I like it. Exposure and TV coverage is something our division doesn’t get much of, and I’m a great advocate of anything that increases the profile of our game.
“I believe it’s important for the players. There are guys not getting the credit that they deserve, and this is certainly a great opportunity for lads to maybe catch the attention of bigger and better things and put themselves in the shop window.
“But I think we could do a lot more if I’m honest. I’ve had conversations publicly recently about the commercial performance of the sport outside Super League, and I don’t think we do enough collectively.
“As clubs and as a sport, we could still do a lot more outside of Super League. That covers a bit of everything. In my view, the uncertainty over whether the Summer Bash would be televised this year won’t have helped, but we could also do a lot more in terms of pooling resources and looking at Championship-wide commercial deals instead of all looking after our own plots of land. I think we could work together in some of the bigger events to get more money in the overall pot.
“We’ve got to make the most of what we’ve got. It’s fair to say Swinton are not likely to go and win the Challenge Cup, so in terms of a trophy we’ve probably only got the new 1895 Cup to aim at.
“Blackpool at least gives the lads something different, a kind of one-off fixture that they can enjoy.”
Former Halifax coach Richard Marshall has been involved in all four Summer Bashes to date, winning twice and losing twice. Having also experienced Magic Weekend while an assistant at Warrington Wolves, he understands the importance of its presence in the calendar.
“The Championship doesn’t always get the credit it deserves as a competition, and certainly doesn’t get the exposure,” Marshall says.
“We’ve had a little bit more this year with Toronto being in, and maybe a few Challenge Cup games as well. But the main competition often doesn’t get enough credit and there are some wonderful players at this level. I think we’ll see more over the next couple of years – and we’ve already seen it – of Super League clubs recruiting from the Championship.
“It means a lot to the players. They’re usually playing against their local rivals or somebody that they’re vying in the table with.
“It’s a really good concept. Whether the location could be different is up for debate, it could perhaps be closer to most of the clubs. I know people make a weekend of it in Blackpool and that’s great, but you could still make a weekend of it in Bolton or Manchester, somewhere like that. There might be some logistics involved in that, but certainly, it’s served a really good purpose in Blackpool and gives the RFL a showpiece event for the game at this level.”
Marshall also says there are logistical issues for players and coaches on game day.
“You’re always up against it with timings when you have at least three games on one day. It can make warm-ups difficult and a couple of little intricacies like that which the public don’t get to see.
“Your changing rooms can be Portacabins, and some of those things could be improved. But as a showpiece event that gets us some extra coverage it’s fantastic, and I’m certainly a big advocate of it. We’re especially looking forward to playing Bradford this year and we’ll know plenty about each other by then.”
Leigh fullback McNally echoes Marshall’s thoughts on pre and post-match situations, but says they are issues worth dealing with for the sake of staging the event.
“I think they learned a lot from the first Summer Bash,” McNally adds.
“Then, it was a case of you had to be straight back into the changing rooms and out as quickly as possible, you weren’t allowed to even clap your supporters after the game. We were lucky because we were the last game on the Saturday and could take as long as we wanted.
“Some of the changing rooms are still a bit small, but when you have four teams at any one time needing them that’s always going to be the case – you’ve just got to adapt and get on with it.”