Rugby league: A game in crisis?

Bradford going into administration is the tip of the iceberg. The Broncos are leaving London after a 30-year struggle and there are failings with the salary cap and sponsors

Two of the three domestic rugby league trophies have been won over the last couple of weeks. Warrington's victory over Leeds at Wembley produced a vibrant occasion, if not a great Challenge Cup final. A week later, Wigan came back from a 26-point deficit at Hull KR to clinch the League Leaders' Shield.

This weekend sees the start of the play-offs and Old Trafford will be full for the Super League Grand Final next month, but, if this is unmistakably the business end of the season, there are lingering doubts over how sustainable, as a business, rugby league really is in its present form.

Even though the Bradford Bulls have escaped the slaughterhouse, the difficulty in finding credible new owners has been a warning in itself. Had it been another club in the same position, they could have been history.

The fear is that Bradford could be the tip of an iceberg of financial distress in the chilly waters of recession. The Bulls were the third Super League club in 18 months to go into administration, a record which has raised questions over the Rugby League's fiscal stewardship.

The RFL's chief executive compares the licences it grants to driving licences. They allow you to drive, but do not guarantee you won't crash. That is disingenuous, because, if the driving test tries to do anything, it tries to keep dangerous motorists off the road. The RFL has given the green light to some accidents waiting to happen.

If the rumours are correct, the next club to change hands will be Salford, which is what they need, because they have been haemorrhaging money since moving into their new stadium this season. They have had no option but to accept Sale Sharks as co-tenants and last Saturday suffered the indignity of having to take their final game of the season to Leigh, because the stadium was required for rugby union.

Two hundred miles south, rugby league could be about to lose its main professional presence in London after 30 years of struggle.

The London Broncos have had another unsuccessful, poorly supported season at The Stoop and are considering moving to Gillingham. The Medway has its attractions, not least a thriving junior club, but it is not London – and the capital is where rugby league's most significant grass-roots growth has been so hard-won.

Almost unnoticed, another club has dropped off the bottom end of the professional game, without ever playing a match. The Northampton Rebels were supposed to be one of four expansion clubs in the South, but have already withdrawn, conceding that they could not come up to scratch, even for part-time rugby in Championship 1.

Economic difficulties are not confined to club level. The code's two major competitions are in need of new sponsors. Super League's ill-fated dalliance with Eddie Stobart has crashed into the barriers after just one season – a failure which the RFL has somehow dressed up as a success.

In the Challenge Cup, Carnegie have been little more than sleeping partners for the last two years and cannot wait to get out.

Not all of this is rugby league's fault. Much of it stems from the general economic climate. Nor is the picture universally grim. The game got a good television deal last time with Sky, which remains delighted with its viewing figures and the quality of the entertainment.

Even then, there is a caveat. As Gary Hetherington, the chief executive of the consistently successful Leeds Rhinos, pointed out last week, Super League has developed a new "big four". The other members are Wigan, St Helens and Warrington and it is becoming more, rather than less, difficult to break in. "That shouldn't be the case in a salary-capped sport," he said.

The salary cap, allied with the replacement of promotion and relegation by the licensing process, was touted as the way of saving clubs from themselves and equalising the competition. It has achieved neither aim and the review of the game drawn up by its acting chairman, Maurice Watkins, is full of hints that the basic principles upon which Super League is built should be up for examination.

One of the first practical issues to be decided is which division Bradford, under their new ownership, should be allowed to play in next season.

There was great support within the game to try to ensure the Bulls' survival, but such is the financial situation that some clubs now might fancy the idea of splitting Super League's money 13 rather than 14 ways.

Meanwhile, the RFL will next week launch a new marketing campaign, aimed at winning over the uninitiated. There at least seems to be an understanding that rugby league cannot afford to stand still while the icy waters lap around its ankles.

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