We all love rugby league, but the sport continues to struggle to capture a new audience, instead posing more questions than answers.
The Six Nations rugby union came to a climax at the weekend, and while international rugby union has its moments, for every good move there are countless scrums that take an age to set (before collapsing of course), kicks back and forth and very little time where the ball is actually in play.
But this isn’t an article about criticising rugby union, far from it. Despite its, at times, sub-standard product, union continues to prosper. The media attention the Six Nations receives, as well as the passionate following from a wide range of fans, points the way forward for rugby league, which despite an excellent product, continues to falter in terms of reach.
Why is that the case?
I am from a rugby league heartland. Most of my friends are from a rugby league town. Yet I am the only one who follows and has an interest in rugby league. Even though the team of that town, Warrington, are on the verge of possibly a number of year’s of success, following two cup triumphs already, rugby league continues to fail to capture the imagination of those around me.
I’ve tried on countless occasions to get them interested, but I’m always hit with questions – questions which I struggle to answer in a satisfactory fashion.
– Why is there a French team in the top league?
– Why does the team who finishes top of the league not get called the champions?
– Why is there no promotion and relegation?
The latest question of puzzlement surrounds the March 31st Super League licence decision. They can’t understand how a team is just going to be allowed to go up, despite potentially not being near the top of the league, nor can they understand why it’s being done midway through the season. While we may be able to take a stab at justifying the questions posed, casual or new fans won’t have the time or knowledge to comprehend the answers.
The majority of people are of course interested in football. A well-organised sport, and it’s only natural that potential new fans draw comparisons with something they are familiar with. You don’t get French teams in the English leagues, you win the league if you come first and teams can get promoted and relegated as per the superbly structured football pyramid.
The issue is, I’ve ran out of ideas and suggestions as to how I can convert my friends. There are too many questions that pose too many complicated answers which make it difficult for any new fan to casually understand and take up the game. Say I introduce a fan to watch Widnes or Halifax this season. They may have an average season, finish 3rd or 4th in the Championship, but then next season are playing with the big boys in Super League. That takes some explaining. If Wakefield are getting booted out to accommodate the new arrival, and they finish 10th in Super League, how do you explain why the four teams below them survived the chop?
I’d like nothing more than to be able to go to games with my friends, or be able to hold a regular rugby league conversation with them. But I can’t.
Rugby league is a way of life for those that are captured by it. As a sport, it needs to find ways it can capture new fans more consistently. Rugby league needs to understand itself, before it can be truly understood and appreciated for the wonderful sport it is.