RUGBY FOOTBALL LEAGUE Chief Executive Ralph Rimmer spoke to journalists on Friday about the current state of Rugby League, fielding questions from several journalists, including League Express editor Martyn Sadler.
Here we reproduce the key questions and his responses. He begins by fielding questions on the working parties that were announced last week on competition structures and governing body realignment.
Ian Laybourn: There are some familiar faces on the two working parties. Would it not be better to have independent members? Aren’t those people’s views going to be aligned to their own clubs’ interests?
Ralph Rimmer: We talk about that on a regular basis. Clearly the RFL is an independent board and our representation is there independently, which balances off some of the club interests that sits there as well. However, the way that people have approached that complex work on both tables has been really powerful. So you can level that criticism and I understand it, but I do think the people on those tables are working to a timeframe and a fairly robust project plan together for both tables and I have no doubt that they will be open to external scrutiny when the time comes.
Ian Laybourn: There is no one from the Championship or League 1 represented, and I’m sure you will say that you as the RFL will represent their interests, but what about any representation from players and coaches? Is that on the cards?
Ralph Rimmer: Absolutely. We want to align the sport from a governance perspective. That then allows us to look at the shape and what we can do. There will definitely be consultation with players and coaches. We are going through a consultation phase with our RFL strategy and that very much puts players at the centre of the piece. Our consultations on strategy have extended to the GMB, to the England performance unit and I’ve been to the coaches’ forum as well. That strategy touches everybody and there will be more input before we get to the right place.
Ian Laybourn: Would it be better to get the realignment sorted first, before you started looking at new structures?
Ralph Rimmer: One runs ahead of the other and you are right to get it that way around. Absolutely everything depends on that successful realignment. When we talk to our respective partners about how we might go forward we talk to broadcasters, potential investors and they talk to us about the importance of being realigned. I speak on a regular basis to some of my peers in other sports I know how their discussions take place with potential strategic partners. You’re right that everything depends on realignment but some of the work can kick off behind that, but nevertheless run in parallel.
Ian Laybourn: The realignment talks seem to be dragging on a little. When do you envisage the work being completed?
Ralph Rimmer: The realignment talks are not dragging on. We’ve got to a place where we’re all going forward pretty progressively. Some of those discussions are sensitive, so people have to check with their constituents and come back again. We would like some good outcomes before the end of this year, but we need to get to the right place and, wherever that is, it has to be open to external scrutiny. Everybody wants it to happen tomorrow and I want it to happen as quickly as possible, as long as the process is robust and we get to the right place.
Aaron Bower: What were the criteria to be included in these working groups? I’ve spoken to a couple of clubs who said they haven’t been consulted about the opportunity to be involved. Who made the decision of who was involved in these groups?
Ralph Rimmer: The nominations came from Super League, so that’s how those people ended up there. It was nothing to do with us. We put our own representatives on.
Aaron Bower: The people on these groups have been involved with groups like this before. What do you say to people who say that in two years’ time we might just be here again? It’s the same people making the same decisions. Why is this time going to be any different?
Ralph Rimmer: The differences are dramatic. The first thing is that we will speak as a unified sport and that is really significant. When you talk about some of the expertise around the table, you have Eamonn (McManus), who is obviously grounded in banking. When he worked in Hong Kong this was the kind of work he did on a regular basis. You have Karen (Moorhouse), who trained in a city law firm and her background is corporate restructure, equity and finance. So you have some pretty skilled people on there and a sprinkling of Rugby League experience. I think this group has a focus and a very clear project plan and it will deliver.
Aaron Bower: What will be the big benefits of realignment compared to where we are now?
Ralph Rimmer: Firstly, it’s critical we sell the sport as one. There would be a joint-venture vehicle that would have all the commercial collateral belonging to the sport in one place, so that we could speak to any broadcaster or commercial partner and say we can give you some international Rugby League, some Super League, some League 1 and so on, or you can invest in OurLeague. All of those elements will come together. They won’t work in conflict any more, they will work together. That’s really significant. It also offers a really considerable benefit to any potential investment partner. They want to have an input into how a sport goes forward commercially as a whole, rather than having parts that are potentially in conflict with each other. So everything is about how we are set up to deliver, to make us attractive, and I think we are in a place where we can deliver to any potential investment partner. The structure’s good, but we’re not quite there yet. But there is a will among all the people around that table to work together to get us to a good place.
Aaron Bower: When you talk about making the sport as attractive as possible, how damaging is it to lose a full-time presence in London, given that the Broncos are going part-time?
Ralph Rimmer: It’s not the greatest story in the world, but David Hughes has been at the forefront of the Broncos for a long time. London is a critical place for us, producing plenty of players for us now. And because we are aligning as a sport, we can much more easily take strategic decisions like that than when it’s the RFL or Super League talking. Examples such as London, Coventry or France, if you are working as a sport towards a strategy with a plan and some strategic partners, then decisions relating to London and similar issues become a lot clearer.
Aaron Bower: Does the governing body have to shoulder some responsibility for what has happened in London and losing that full-time presence down there?
Ralph Rimmer: London has had a great deal of support from the governing body, including for their Academy along the way. And just like every other club, they are third-party ownerships. It’s down to those ownerships and how they want to run their clubs. Many of those ownerships don’t want any governing body involvement in them. And that’s reasonable, because it’s their organisation.
Aaron Bower: Can you give any guarantees that everyone can move forward together or are we going to lose some clubs?
Ralph Rimmer: There are no guarantees. All the clubs have attended regular forums with us. There are no surprises for any of the clubs. We have been speaking to them for the best part of six months. However, we are working very hard to keep everyone in the game and we will continue to do so. We know all of those clubs intimately and we know the weaknesses of each of them. They are all very different with different business models and our business is enabling people to play Rugby League. So there are no guarantees, but likewise there are no shocks that have come to any of the clubs. We want to get them to a better place.
Martyn Sadler: Of the RFL’s non-executive directors, you only have one (Sandy Lindsay) on one of these working parties. I would have thought being involved in discussions like this would have been a perfect role for non-executive directors. Why are more of them not involved?
Ralph Rimmer: Because they are non-executive directors of the RFL and those forums deserve some form of parity. The NED’s input is fantastic in our boardroom and no doubt they will be introduced at different points. But Simon (Johnson, RFL Chair) does speak to Ken (Davy) on a regular basis about the way forward for the game. So they may not be visible on those forums, but their input is there, although this is about parity and the way we go forward.
Martyn Sadler: You’ve said it will be much better when everyone is realigned and I’m sure everyone will agree with that, particularly after what has happened over the last three years. But wasn’t that true in 2017 and 18, when the split occurred? If it’s true now, why couldn’t people see it then?
Ralph Rimmer: I’ve always been an advocate of alignment, as you know. However, I’m not saying it was perfect before and clearly people sometimes get frustrated and focus on the wrong things, but nevertheless we’ve been through a cycle that brings us to this point and to a good place. When we speak to externals about what we are doing, they seem extremely motivated and the amount of unsolicited contact we have had from potential partners, and really highly credible partners, has been provoked by some of the changes they know are happening and they believe are going to take us to a good place.
Martyn Sadler: I hope so, but there are a significant number of people throughout the UK with great expertise in how to create the most effective governance of team sport. There are a lot of different models you could look at that have varying degrees of success. So I’m surprised that you think the whole wisdom on this issue comes from people who are already involved in Rugby League. There are a lot of people I can think of who could make a crucial contribution. But if you get it wrong again it will be disastrous. Surely you have to get to a place where the clubs can’t veto everything they don’t like. If they can, you are going to be stuck forever.
Ralph Rimmer: There are two elements to that. One is that we haven’t looked at this governance issue in isolation. We always take some external advice on what may or may not work. You are absolutely right that different sports have different models and that there is no perfect model. What we are endeavouring to do is bring in some external strategic advice to help shape the way we go forward. But in the first instance we have to decide how we are going to get to that place and that’s what we are going at the moment.
John Davidson: There is a lot of concern from supporters about the leadership of the game. How do you respond to that? Many people are saying you have gone missing since your interview on Sky about the Academy decision.
Ralph Rimmer: Sometimes there’s a time to speak, and sometimes to get on with the work. But I absolutely hear and understand the criticism levelled at me on that basis. However, it has been a very sensitive time politically, not just domestically, and sometimes the best way to get things done is to work alongside some of your peers and to do the work quietly before you start to come out and talk about the journey going forward. We have gone through some very sensitive negotiations. Part of that relates to the financial settlements of the broadcast deals. We’ve got to a place that takes us forward. So yes, I could have stood up every week and said this or that, but that would have limited the progress we have made.
Mick Gledhill: What impact do the broadcasters Sky and the BBC have on this realignment process? We hear about what they want, which ultimately is value for money.
Ralph Rimmer: I’ve sat down with Sky and the BBC and we have gone through our strategy. We speak to them on a regular basis and we want them on our journey with us. Their partnerships have been really important to us in the last quarter century or two and we want them to be part of what the future may look like. In addition to that, we have to bring some external advice in. However we end up, we have to have a shape that will stand up to scrutiny and that is evidence led. We have got to a point where we can move as a collective with people who have open minds. I firmly believe there is something good that lies ahead. But to get there we need cohesion.
Mick Gledhill: Is private equity still on the table moving forward?
Ralph Rimmer: It is, absolutely, and other forms of investment. There are many different forms of investment, which come in all forms of partnerships and those people have certainly been in contact with us. We have set out the process and we’ll go along to the market with that and we’ll see what the solution is at the end. I couldn’t tell you what that is now, but I can certainly tell you that we seem to have stimulated a good deal of interest.
Mick Gledhill: The RFL has been given about £5 million from the Sky broadcast deal, as opposed to around £9 million per year from the previous deal. What impact will that cut have on the organisation?
Ralph Rimmer: We have taken some significant cuts. Super League are taking some significant cuts as well as are the Championship and League 1 clubs. The RFL does get a cut from the broadcast deal and from that it provides services to the Super League. For example, insurance costs about £750,000, referees, anti-doping, match officials and other services provided to Super League out of those monies. The RFL will be taking a good deal of pain with that reduction. But Super League have acted honourably in this; negotiations were very sensitive indeed. But everybody can point to everyone else and say we are all taking pain. But this is about us reshaping and reforming to a place where we can attract equity investment and take the game forward. From some of the conversations I’m having, there is a very exciting future ahead of us.
Ross Heppenstall: With hindsight, was it a mistake to split three years ago?
Ralph Rimmer: Everybody knows I wasn’t a supporter of the split three years ago. I am not pretending that what existed three years ago was the perfect solution. When things aren’t going as people would like, they will look at reasons for that. But that decision three years ago was out of my control. Life is about cycles and I think this cycle has brought us to a really healthy place. All the difficult months we’ve just been through have contributed to that. Everybody knows that when I was talking to the government in order to bring money into the game, the government was talking about reshaping, reforming, rationalising and working efficiently going forward. There are many different forces that have touched us in the last three years but I think we’re on a real platform now to do something different, because everyone’s mindset has been disrupted by all the variables I’ve just spoken about.
Ross Heppenstall: Was the split three years ago done in conjunction with the RFL?
Ralph Rimmer: We had a significant element of our stakeholder group that was very dissatisfied with the shape of the sport as it was. There were different ways to look at that, and at the time we agreed to that kind of separation. We supported the Super League on what they were trying to do on the basis that we hoped they would be successful and bring us all greater gains going forward. For many reasons outside our control, including a huge pandemic, that didn’t happen. But look where we are. I’ve been involved in this sport professionally for 30 years. I’ve never before been involved with so many people looking collectively to work collectively to produce significant change. I speak to the clubs and talk to them about different sports and the way they are looking to re-invent themselves and about the broadcast market, and all those different tectonic plates that move around us. What we cannot do is be irrelevant. We have to be relevant in 2022 and in 2030. We have never been more politically strong than we are now. There are lots of different things that have brought us to that place. We have to react to a changing landscape, because if we don’t, we will be submerged and we certainly don’t intend to do that.
Matthew Shaw: In terms of London, does the RFL have a strategy to grow the game and expand the footprint and, if so, can you give us some specifics of what that looks like?
Ralph Rimmer: We have had great success in London at community level. Professional level becomes more complicated because professional clubs are owned by third parties. No matter how many times you sit down with them and advise them that they would benefit by moving in this or that direction, they will still do as they want to do.
The Academy at London is very successful and that is something we want to protect. I understand the importance of the professional club in terms of the Academy. A lot of work has gone into London, both by the clubs and an awful lot by the RFL. We have reaped some benefit in terms of producing players, and we would like to tie this up with our strategy to produce more when the landscape allows.
Matthew Shaw: At this stage, do the clubs know what distribution looks like individually and if not, can you give us a timeline for when they can expect to get that information?
Ralph Rimmer: We have been modelling with the clubs for the last three meetings. There is one more to come. We held a meeting in Bradford and took some more comment from the floor. We’ll come back for another meeting in about two weeks’ time where we expect to come back with a refined model that they should all understand. But they all have a fairly strong idea of where it is, and it’s taken two or three meetings to get to that point.
Matthew Shaw: Where are we in terms of broadcasting the Championship and League 1?
Ralph Rimmer: We will announce a broadcast partner soon and of course OurLeague will be showing a lot of League 1, Wheelchair and the Women’s game. So from a broadcasting perspective there will be a good deal to watch next year that should be of a high quality.
Gareth Walker: You were heavily involved with the introduction of Coventry into the professional game. How does it make you feel when (Coventry owner) Alan Robinson says that they imminent cuts could be the end of them as a professional club? And when we are talking about strategic decisions, how does the possible loss of a club with such great potential actually stack up?
Ralph Rimmer: It hurts, but I was in contact with Alan last night and last weekend. He is not out there drifting. I am trying to help him on certain fronts but of course the central distribution is difficult. Coventry and Alan in particular have done some extraordinary things, not just putting a team out on the park, but a lot of things on top of that. After a few seasons the team is credible now, mainly with players from the Midlands, with about five coming down from the north. I can’t make any promises, but I’m not oblivious to the great work that has been done there and I recognise its potential.
Gareth Walker: Some people would say that the Super League clubs fortunate enough to be in the top twelve have had seven-figure handouts for so many years, and yet we have new areas with potential that are really struggling on a relatively small amount of money. Does that need a wider view from somebody to oversee?
Ralph Rimmer: Strategic investment will be an option if we get the realignment right. Some of those areas you talk about may be seen as more strategic than some of our traditional areas. They may well at that point deserve a different way of looking at them. Let’s get our sequence of work in line, so we’re not making knee-jerk decisions in one direction that could derail what we are trying to do in the bigger picture.
Dave Craven: With cricket coming up with The Hundred and rugby union talking about a competition with 12-man teams, are we going to see something bold or are we going to be shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic again?
Ralph Rimmer: I think the product is great. I could talk to you at length about the success or not of some of those competitions you are talking about. I think The Hundred is a great example of someone doing something bold, which has been done with significant investment backed by a broadcaster on the back of some underpinning investment as well. That is an example of the sort of thing that may be possible. But do I think there is anything massively wrong with Rugby League as a product? No! I have plenty of ideas myself, but I’ll keep them on the shelf for the time being.
James Gordon: At what point do you look at what fans are saying about the game and involve them? Is there a vehicle for fans to have their say about what they want to see?
Ralph Rimmer: We are currently doing an end-of-season fan review. My objective is that there will be nobody out there who didn’t have the opportunity to contribute.
James Gordon: Is there a genuine criticism that the people on the advisory groups are from clubs in the heartlands and there is no one representing clubs outside that area?
Ralph Rimmer: There will always be criticism, regardless of what group you put out there, I understand that. But this is a process, and it will bring in externals, so that independence will come in. We welcome that, but we want to put ourselves in the best place to receive it.
And also, when we do come up with solutions, I want to be able to point exactly to the path that was taken.
James Gordon: How difficult is it to balance the long-term strategic views with the short-terms fires that are burning?
Ralph Rimmer: It is a balancing act. The RFL strategy is based around what we would like to look like in 2030, but you can’t disregard what that journey will be. You’re right that there are lots of conflicting forces involved, which we do have to manage our way through. I think we have a plan with some credibility. I would like to thank Ken and his colleagues for being a part of that and hopefully we will lead this sport into another era, so whoever takes over from all of us will have something they can really celebrate.
Trevor Hunt: What’s happening at the end of the season? Are we going to have relegation? What will we have in 2022?
Ralph Rimmer: All the mechanisms that were previously in place for the end of the season will remain in place.
Trevor Hunt: Is the idea of 14 teams in Super League next year, and two tens thereafter now a dead duck?
Ralph Rimmer: I don’t think there will be a transition in the form you have just described as things currently stand. If we did transition to that format, it’s too early to say how we would do it.
Martyn Sadler: How will you change the mood of the game? I’m sick of people within and without the game telling me it’s dying. We surely need to create a much better feeling about the game generally.
Ralph Rimmer: I get that, Martyn. First of all, I would hope that some of the things we are saying today begin to give people a bit of confidence. At least people will know there is some leadership going on and leadership does come in different forms from the top of the game, from me and Ken and the others who are involved. We are going to a good place and hopefully that ball will start to roll now. A vacuum is dangerous, that it absolutely true. I do think also that we have a big month of Rugby League ahead. We have just had the Magic Weekend, which was a fantastic weekend of Rugby League. There are so many games taking place between now and the Grand Final, so there is a lot to focus on and that will make people feel good about the sport once again. Hopefully now people can watch that and see what it delivers, while also knowing that something else is going on in the background as well. We are not flapping around; we are a sport moving together, and because we are moving together, we are beginning to feel powerful again. That’s what creates mood swings.
Martyn Sadler: You can have all the consultation in the world, but if you consult 100 people you will get 100 different opinions, and that isn’t leadership. Surely leadership is knowing where you need to go and taking the game with you.
Ralph Rimmer: I agree that you want to be able to stand up and say this is why we need to go in this direction for the good of the game. I think we’ve developed that cohesion around that table in recent weeks. The game is in a place where it’s going to move together. We are not there yet, but people can see that we are getting there. I agree that you can’t consult yourself to death, but we have developed that cohesion, and now we have to put the plan there, and then we move.
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