- By Region
Viewers of Sky’s Monday Night Football slot on Monday night should not adjust their sets. There will be 26 brightly clad giants chasing an oval ball rather than the usual 22 and they will be accompanied by loud music, cheerleaders and referees checking video replays before making decisions.
Sky’s decision to use the seasonal gap for its “iconic slot” to screen rugby league – a sport generally confined to the north of England – shows how far the game has come since switching from winter to summer in 1996.
Some believe football has much to learn from the sport, which has introduced a salary cap (£1.65m) and a licensing system to ensure clubs are financially solvent.
Rather than automatic promotion and relegation to the 14-strong Super League, clubs have three-year licences, at the end of which they only go up or remain if they meet criteria on ground quality, management and community engagement.
New sponsors such as Stobart, the logistics company, and a new deal with Sky have fuelled its success. The Rugby Football League, the governing body, was making a loss a decade ago but now makes a profit, hitting £48.2m in income in 2010. It ploughed £27m back into the sport, up from £12m in 2001.
But there is growing criticism within the game. Bradford Bulls, champions in 2005 and featuring in Monday night’s game versus Castleford, avoided administration over Easter only because fans helped raise £500,000 after its bank overdraft was cut. Players were selling medals and manning fundraising lines.
Neil Hudgell, a lawyer and chairman of Hull Kingston Rovers, told the Financial Times the recession had hit hard. “Bradford Bulls is the tip of the iceberg. There is not enough revenue and there are too many clubs and too few decent players. Clubs use the Inland Revenue as an unofficial overdraft [by delaying salary taxes].”
He estimates 40 per cent of players are from New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific islands and France. He says a quest to expand the game to London, Wales and southern France has drained resources from its heartland in the north of England. “The expansionist policy has failed,” he said.
Second placed Warrington Wolves, owned by Simon Moran, the concert promoter behind SJM, is one of four Super League clubs that are profitable and is among only six – all in the northern heartlands – to boast average crowds of more than 10,000.
Andy Gatcliffe, chief executive, favours a reduction to 10 clubs. He said the town’s new stadium, which brings in income from office rents, conferences and weddings, was vital, along with an annual TV payment worth between £1.25m and £1.4m.
Andy Burnham, MP for Leigh and honorary vice-president of the town’s rugby league club, in May opened a debate on the “closed shop” licensing system. “The dream factor is the lifeblood of any sport – it keeps hope alive within the club and it keeps fans going through the turnstiles,” he said in an open letter to the RFL.
Nigel Wood, RFL chief executive, said Bradford was an exception, a throwback to times when clubs overreached themselves “chasing the dream”.
The franchise system will be reviewed in 2014 while Super League chairmen voted to keep it at 14 clubs in November.
“It is a legitimate attempt to find a way of moving up and down competitions without big financial consequences. It is not pulling up the drawbridge,” Mr Wood said.
He pointed to a massive increase in participation, with thousands of schools, many in the south-east, taking up the sport and more English players coming through the ranks.
Semi-professional clubs from Gloucester, Northampton and Hemel Hempstead will join the third tier next season.”The sport has made a terrific amount of progress over the last 10 years.” he said. “But we are not complacent and there is more to do.“