The usual anticipation for the new season has this year been replaced by agonising and in most cases, moaning, about what is and what isn’t happening off the pitch.
At least it doesn’t seem to be affecting the players, or at least those we’ve spoken to in recent weeks, who are getting about their business as usual, as if oblivious to the general sense of unrest amongst the fans that turn out to see them each week.
The RFL still doesn’t have a permanent chairman in place – interim Maurice Watkins was recently appointed as chairman of British swimming – and more prominently perhaps, Super League remains sponsorless; as do the Championships and the Challenge Cup. The World Cup is also chasing some headline sponsors for the make-or-break tournament at the end of the year.
It represents a huge challenge for James Mercer, the relatively new commercial director of the governing body and based in London, and his team to sell the respective packages, particularly when rugby league is struggling at times to sell the game to its own fans.
Last year’s well-publicised, much-criticised freebie (at least in terms of money) for Stobart was followed by a botched deal worth at least a bit of cash to the clubs with electronic company Elonex, and as yet, there’s been no real inkling or hint that any companies are lined up.
In the autumn, it was suggested that all the competitions would be packaged in to one deal, but that doesn’t seem to have attracted much interest. Instead, a more likely outcome, is that Heinz step up from being a secondary partner – they sponsored last season’s World Club Challenge amongst others – to a headline sponsor.
We’ve not even mentioned Salford yet, although their troubles show at least some sign of waning after their court hearing was adjourned for another few weeks, in light of growing speculation investment is imminent.
The RFL have even managed to cop criticism for that one, largely courtesy of the Bradford saga, while the licensing system remains a topic of discontent considering we’re now averaging one team going for a burton in every year since it was introduced. While the governing body has an overall responsibility for the game, they can’t spoon-feed clubs, and
Rugby league’s favourite mysterious investor, Feisal Nahaboo of PROBIZ, has seemingly put all his eggs in one basket with Featherstone, and is backing their bid to join Super League, having previously had a dabble at Castleford, Halifax and Wigan. Whether that shows that he is confident in Featherstone being able to displace Castleford in a couple of years remains to be seen.
That said, what’s actually happening in two years is still unknown. A sprinkling of top men at Championship clubs were convinced the licensing system was being scrapped entirely, and come 2015, promotion and relegation would be back in force. It seems to have gone a bit quiet since then, perhaps due to the added attention given to keeping the current 14 as 14, before even worrying about anybody else.
But it will all come together, rugby league fans need to put faith in themselves and the game. New sponsors aren’t going to chuck much-needed cash at the sport when there is an apparent fans mutiny – whether it be against individuals or organisations, or otherwise.
Rugby league needs to show off what it actually is – and that’s a bloody good product on the pitch.
So here’s to a good season; some good sponsors in, no clubs going under, a competitive Super League season, and most importantly, the best Rugby League World Cup there’s ever been.