Teatime slot bites the dust as League joins the Monday Night Football club
From tonight, Super League will attempt to cash in on a tried and tested spot in schedule
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.
Monday 21 May 2012
The Premier League has it. American football has it. In Australia, both rugby league and Rules have it. It is Monday Night Football and, in a new departure for Sky and the game in this country, from tonight, Super League will have it.
"It's such a strong brand," says Neville Smith, the Australian who has produced Sky's coverage since the days before Super League was born.
Smith is the man who has pushed the idea of replacing Sky's previous Saturday teatime slot with regular Mondays – at least until the start of the new football season. He went first to his bosses at Sky, then to the Rugby League, and finally to the Super League chief executives. It was not a hard sell. "I couldn't believe it," says Smith. "They almost gave me a round of applause."
The upshot was that rugby league will occupy one of the network's prime slots through the summer, except when the pattern is disrupted by the Magic Weekend, representative games and cup semi-finals.
"Apart from that, the idea is that people will be able to look forward to a fixed spot for two-and-a-half, three months," Smith says. It is, he insists, that desire for stability, rather than the failure of what is often perceived as the Saturday teatime "graveyard shift" that has driven the change.
Sky does not put out audience figures, but it is claiming a massive 45 per cent increase this season – and that applies to Fridays and Saturdays.
Of course, the change will not suit everyone and will look to some like Sky calling the tune a little too loudly. Monday night is hardly the most family-friendly time of the week.
That is why Sky has chosen to announce all its Monday fixtures in advance, rather than laying itself open to the charge of messing the paying supporter around.
It also says it has tried to keep journey times down to a reasonable level. You would not want to tackle the length of the M62 on a Monday and then again on a Friday.
It is certainly starting with a strong fixture, if not a particularly local one, in Leeds versus St Helens; other goodies in store include a Hull derby on 22 July and Saints versus Warrington to wrap up the season within the season on 6 August.
The danger is that with some clubs committed to Fridays and Saturdays, regardless of television, the bill of fare on Sundays could be weaker than ever.
Rugby league was the first sport in Britain to switch wholesale to Sundays and it brought some definite advantages by offering live sport to Monday morning papers and, especially, to local radio.
Smith hopes, however, that Monday nights will attract enough of a new public to outweigh any losses. That was the view of Saints' Jon Wilkin, one of the most articulate of modern players, at a fans' forum this week – little to lose and quite possibly a good deal to gain.
Any new Monday night viewers will not see anything radically different from Sky's usual rugby league output. There is likely to be more punditry on the pitch, though, a style of presentation into which the broadcaster has so far only dipped its toes cautiously, but which is a conspicuous aspect of Australian coverage.
"The action on the pitch will always be the main thing. There will be some changes, but a lot could depend on the weather," says Smith. Stout waterproof shoes the order of the day at Headingley, then.
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