The commercial appeal of rugby league isn’t necessarily impacted on where the sport is played.
Often conversations on expansion centre around opening up the sport to a new audience, and the apparent obsession with developing artificial international teams filled with nationalised Australians and Englishmen not good enough to play for their own nations is a result of this.
It is not really helping the game if Qatar, for instance, chuck in a team to the next round of World Cup qualifying and fill it with English or Australian players who are paid to gain citizenship (ala what is predicted to happen when they host the football World Cup in 2022).
One of the biggest sporting events on the planet is the Super Bowl, American Football’s answer to the Super League Grand Final. It is huge. It was only overtaken as the number one event last year, when Barcelona defeated Manchester United in the Champions League Final. Yet American Football does not have much of a professional footprint anywhere outside of the USA, let alone an international game, yet still manages to show the way when it comes to a commercial footprint.
There may be people who may want to stop any mention of commercialising rugby league, but stop. Rugby league is a professional game, players are paid to play it for a living, and as such, they need compensating for this privilege. With that comes a raft of responsibility, and each club has to survive as a business in its own right. This is modern day sport. Any comparison to “the good old days” should be ignored, the sports industry is a much different place now, and there is no going back.
Back to the NFL, which is widely covered (and watched) on SKY Sports on a weekly basis. There are no teams in this country, yet there is still enough interest to virtually sell out Wembley year-on-year for a one-off game. This is because the NFL plays to its strengths, has confident in its product, and doesn’t partake on expansion in an artificial manner that threatens its structure.
A sport which restricts its international growth in its very name is the AFL. They have embarked on expansion in recent years, ironically threatening rugby league heartland areas, to establish itself as the most popular sports league in Australia. They don’t have the reach that rugby league apparently craves so much, yet can still command television agreements of more than $1.36bn over five years.
Whether intentional or not, although it is more than likely, the AFL finds itself following an American model which is an undoubted success. The NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL are all massive sporting entities, and while the latter two sports do boast professional leagues across the globe, their pinnacle remains in the USA.
It may seem completely irrelevant to a sport that critics (often rugby union hacks who must piece together articles through boredom during penalty fests) dub as a small-time sport played by a handful of towns in the north of England and in two states of Australia.
But it was something that tugged at me when reading a recent piece by Oliver Holt in the Daily Mirror, talking about the chief of the English Premier League football and his criticism of American sports. It quotes Richard Scudamore, the PL chief executive, as saying “They have pulled off a trick of putting on a lot of meaningless sport, with nothing to play for, no promotion or relegation, yet still having people watch.”
By his definition, rugby league is now a “meaningless sport” that, unlike its American counterparts, is in desperate need of fans and funding to ensure its continued growth and development. The post-promotion and relegation era is in its early days, with Leeds still winning Super League, as they were before it was scrapped. But we’ve seen a slight change to proceedings in recent years, with Warrington positioning themselves as one of the top clubs, Wigan revisiting their glory days, and the likes of Huddersfield and Catalan forging their way amongst the big boys, both establishing themselves as play-off threats as well as reaching Challenge Cup finals in recent years.
At its best, Super League is a competition that can engross and entertain millions, across the world. It doesn’t matter that the competing teams may only be from St Helens and Wigan, two towns in the north west of England. Green Bay Packers in the NFL are testament to that, one of the most admired NFL teams thanks to their small-town, community-owned stature, yet still capable of mixing it with the big boys.
Competitiveness is the key. Holt’s article quotes the fact that only four teams have won football’s Premier League in the past 20 years, compared to the 12 different Super Bowl winners, eight NBA champions, 12 NHL Stanley Cup victors and 11 in baseball.
Rugby league needs to create a buzz about itself. Focus on the on-field excitement of close games, high quality, home produced players and its integrity. Not get embroiled in desperate expansion attempts, scandals and incessant self-promotion. Let the on-field product do the talking.
Too much time is wasted debating off-field issues that should be left to those in the board room. While we all, as stakeholders of the game, have a responsibility to ensure its commercial growth, there are experts in those positions to make sure that happens.
There’s too much bickering within rugby league. It needs to unite to push forward and reach its undoubted potential.