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
Dave Hadfield was a schoolboy convert to rugby league, the game which, one way or another, has dominated his life ever since. After working for newspapers in Shropshire and Blackpool (where he covered the fortunes of Blackpool Borough) he travelled the world, working mainly in Hong Kong and Sydney. He became The Independent's rugby league man in 1990 and has written five books on the game and broadcast extensively for Sky and the BBC. Dave played his last game at the age of 53 and would have set up a try if anyone could have been bothered supporting his break. When not writing about the sport, he now limits himself to a bit of tick and pass with his local club, the Bolton Mets. Family includes supporters - of varying degrees of dedication - of Salford, Wigan, Sheffield Eagles and St George Illawarra.
Friday 14 September 2012
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.
Latest in Sport
When cyclists look back on their careers spanning many hundreds (and in some cases possibly thousand...
by Martin Ayres
20 May 2013 06:12 PM
As England’s new football strip – made by Nike – is revealed today, new research shows the English F...
by Alex Miller
20 May 2013 04:52 PM
A tight game could be in prospect here. Northampton have been keeping things very tight of late and ...
by Gareth Purnell
18 May 2013 02:01 AM
Tottenham to smash pay scale with £150,000-a-week contract in attempt to tie Gareth Bale to club
The Last Word: As David Beckham bows out, spare a thought for the ordinary players facing a crueller end
Arsene Wenger says Arsenal 'need stability and to strengthen in the summer' after qualifying for Champions League
Sam Wallace: The second coming of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea will be a reunion that can only end in tears
James Lawton: When will Arsène Wenger's Arsenal enter the Champions League as anything but a disposable asset?
- 1 The ‘Beverly Hills’ of Surrey pays more income tax than big cities of the North
- 2 Tottenham to smash pay scale with £150,000-a-week contract in attempt to tie Gareth Bale to club
- 3 'Revenge porn' is no longer a niche activity which victimises only celebrities - the law must intervene
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.