Talking Rugby League: A league structure that will work

Martyn Sadler
Martyn Sadler

Martyn Sadler suggests a way forward in the debate about new league structures.

This week the Super League clubs will meet with representatives of the RFL to discuss the structure of governance of their competition, which they will do tomorrow (Tuesday), and the structure of the leagues themselves, which they will talk about on Friday.

The RFL would like to impose its two-twelves, three-eights competition structure on the clubs, and it has been lobbying them strongly in recent weeks to gain their approval.

My fear is that the clubs will roll over and accept what the RFL is proposing, and that the outcome will be disastrous for the game.

Unpopular proposal
Our Readers’ Poll, the results of which we published last week, showed that our readers oppose the RFL’s plans by a majority of two to one. And last week I gave a talk to a group of Huddersfield Giants supporters, and they were also almost unanimously opposed to what the RFL is proposing.

I struggle to understand why the RFL is so keen to create something that so many people within the game, officials as well as supporters, clearly don’t want to see.

I accept that we can have a debate about how successful licensing has been. It isn’t a great advert for licensing when we see clubs that have been granted licences struggling financially. And yet I don’t think licensing itself is necessarily to blame for those problems.

Of course the underlying complaint that many people have about licensing is that it removed promotion and relegation between Super League and the Championship.

Most British sports fans, influenced by association football, are imbued with a love of promotion and relegation.

And there is no doubt that the idea that a side can start from nothing and climb all the way up the leagues to the Premier League is a very appealing one.

The culture of promotion and relegation
Historically, our major association football competitions have never been closed competitions, and clubs have been free to rise and fall in the domestic leagues in accordance with their ability and their results on the field.

Other football competitions have followed suit all over the world, and it would be a brave man or woman who would suggest that the right to promotion and relegation should be removed from those competitions.

Only in the USA and Australia do the major local soccer competitions not have automatic promotion and relegation. And that perhaps is no coincidence, given that professional soccer was a relative latecomer to the professional sports market in both countries, where other sports such as American Football, Rugby League and Aussie Rules already had league systems in place that didn’t include promotion and relegation.

Rugby League in England for most of its history also didn’t have promotion and relegation.

For much of the time until 1973, the 30 clubs were organised into one league, and a fixture structure was created that incorporated local derbies and matches against clubs at the other side of the Pennines that were determined by finishing positions in the league.

Clubs as big as Wigan would feature in one league table alongside clubs as small as Doncaster, although those two clubs would never actually play each other. Even so, any club could theoretically rise and fall, year by year, anywhere between positions one and 30 in the league table without having to break the bank in order to do so.

The big change
That all ended in 1973, however, when the 30 clubs split into a first division of 16 clubs and a second division of 14 clubs.

From that point onwards, clubs were determined to be in the top division, and they would often cripple themselves financially in trying to reach the top division and then stay there.

It was the era when we saw the establishment of what were often described as ‘yo-yo’ clubs. Those were the clubs that would be promoted and relegated year after year, all the time growing financially weaker as a result.

And that is the danger of a system of promotion and relegation.

Even in football we see that Bolton Wanderers, who were relegated from the Premier League in 2012, are now £164 million in debt, after having failed to secure promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt.

So, if we are going to bring back promotion and relegation, the RFL needs to find a way of introducing it that doesn’t impose intolerable financial strains on the clubs.

Creative but unrealistic
The two-twelves, three-eights model is undoubtedly a creative way to address the issue. But it’s just not the right solution, in part because it will be very difficult to explain it to supporters. The splitting of two divisions into three, three-quarters of the way through the season, will be mystifying to the vast majority of fans. And, with eight clubs in that middle division of widely differing financial strength, we are unlikely to see the even contests that the RFL hopes for.

What we urgently need is a conventional league hierarchical structure that allows movement between different levels, but which doesn’t confuse supporters and doesn’t kill off the clubs financially.

The RFL needs to take the best element of licensing with the best element of promotion and relegation to find a system that will work to everyone’s advantage, while bringing back the excitement that is undeniably associated with promotion and relegation.

The best element of licensing is that it gives a club three years to adapt to its promotion to Super League. Widnes have shown us the benefit of that.

In 2012, their first season of Super League, Widnes finished at the bottom of the league, and in a conventional system they would have been immediately relegated. Would their major investor Steve O’Connor have walked away? I’m sure he would have been tempted, and who knows what would have happened to the Vikings if he had done.

Instead, and thanks to licensing, the Vikings are growing organically to become a strong Super League club.

The best of licensing and of P&R
The unfortunate thing about the Vikings, and about licensing, is that they didn’t need to win the Championship competition to be awarded a licence.

On the other hand, the best element of conventional promotion is that a club will go to a higher level because of its achievements on the field.

So why not combine the best of licensing with the best of conventional promotion and relegation?

Let’s have a three-year rolling cycle of promotion and relegation, where a team is promoted every three years, but it only qualifies by winning the Championship Grand Final in at least one out of the three preceding years.

So how might this work?
To put it simply, any club that wins the Championship Grand Final in any of those three years would qualify for the promotion place.

In any three-year period as many as three separate clubs could win the Grand Final. So why not have them compete in a play-off to decide which club would gain promotion?

Three-year cycle
The three clubs could each stage a home game against one of the others, and the eventual winner would be promoted.

That would then generate the same sort of excitement that football currently enjoys with its promotion play-offs.

On the other hand, if the same club had won the Grand Final in two out of the three years, it would host the play-off game against the other team that had won a Grand Final in that time.

For example, if this system had applied at the end of the 2013 season, Sheffield Eagles, who had won the Grand Final in 2012 and 2013, would have hosted Featherstone Rovers, who won the Grand Final in 2011.

And if one club had won the Grand Final in each of those three years, it would not need play-offs to earn promotion. It would be promoted automatically.

And the key thing is that whichever club is successful would have three years to consolidate its position in Super League. It wouldn’t become a yo-yo club, being promoted and relegated annually.

We could also have relegation play-offs, based on the same principle, to determine which team goes down from Super League to the Championship.

A system that would work
I’m convinced that this system would be far better than what the RFL is currently offering both the Super League and the Championship clubs.

It would see promotion and relegation decided on merit, based on results on the field.

And there would be no room for complacency on the part of the clubs.

For example, the club that wins the Championship Grand Final in 2014 would want to win it again in 2015 and 2016 to stop any other club from challenging it in the promotion play-offs.

The resulting system would be highly competitive, with every game counting at the top or bottom of the table. And the promotion and relegation play-offs would have the same sort of excitement we see in football’s play-offs.

A conventional annual promotion system between full-time and part-time competitions, on the other hand, places intolerable strains on the balance sheet and playing resources of a club that gains promotion or suffers relegation.

And I’m afraid the RFL’s proposal will see full-time squads against part-time squads in that middle tier of eight. It will be amazing if we see any genuine movement of clubs in those circumstances.

A club needs a three-year guarantee to allow it to adjust to the demands of a higher league, and full-time squads, regardless of whether there are twelve or fourteen clubs in Super League.

I think it’s a no-brainer, and I would urge the RFL to go down the route I have set out.
And I promise not to charge commission for the idea.