Amendments to IMG grading proposals to be sent to clubs

James Gordon
Super League balls IMG SWpix

Clubs will next week receive details of amendments that have been made to IMG proposals to introduce a grading system to the professional game ahead of the 2025 season.

Full details of IMG’s re-imagining rugby league proposals were revealed to clubs last month, following up from their presentation of their recommendations before Christmas.

It was the first time clubs had seen the finer detail of the proposals, which centre around five key areas.

The main feature was a return to a form of licensing, through a new grading criteria which would see clubs assessed with a grade A, B or C.

Grade A clubs would be guaranteed a Super League place, with the grade B clubs ranked in order to then determine the remaining clubs in the top flight.

It would see a removal of automatic promotion and relegation, although on-field performance would be factored in to the grading assessments.

Other features of the grading criteria include facilities, media engagement and catchment areas.

Vote on IMG grading proposals due on April 19

The 36 professional clubs are due to vote on the proposals on April 19.

It has been revealed that there are some amendments to the proposals, which will be communicated to clubs next week.

What those changes are remains to be seen, though they aren’t thought to be major. It was always considered that there would be amendments to the initial proposals as part of the consultation process with clubs.

Most clubs have kept a relatively close counsel over the proposals so far, having been generally supportive, with Keighley being the most vociferous in opposition.

The Cougars were the only club to vote against the IMG presentation back in October, and followed that up with a lengthy dossier in opposition following the publication of the finer detail in March.

It’s thought that at least one other club are to join Keighley in voting against the proposals, with Batley chairman Kevin Nicholas arguing that the grading criteria was weighted unfairly in favour of current Super League clubs.

The RFL chairman Simon Johnson met with Keighley owners Kaue Garcia and Ryan O’Neill recently to discuss their concerns, although that hasn’t stopped continued attacks on the proposals from the pair since.

Chiefs are keen to find a compromise with any dissenters to remove any anxiety created around the possibility of IMG’s plans falling through, which could have disastrous consequences for the sport.

Timescales are also a pressing issue, with Super League desperate to negotiate a new broadcast deal to replace the one that expires at the end of the current season.

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IMG’s five key grading areas

  • Fandom (25%): encouraging clubs to attract more fans in stadia, at home and digitally, and to improve fan engagement, contributing to both club and central revenues.
  • Performance (25%): incentivising clubs to perform on the field and drive fan awareness and engagement. Teams will be ranked between 1 and 36 based on where they finish in the leagues for the previous three seasons. Bonus points will be awarded to teams who win league and cup competitions in the previous season.
  • Finances (25%): reflecting the success of fan engagement and business performance; and rewarding sustainable investment, as well as diversified revenue streams and sound financial management.
  • Stadium (15%): based on a number of factors, including facilities and utilisation, which add value to the fan and broadcast or digital viewer experience, and match or exceed competition from other sports and events.
  • Catchment (10%): based on area population and the number of clubs in the area, with a view to maximising growth of the sport in the largest markets to generate new fan bases and incentivise investment.

“History repeating itself”

O’Neill is building on the legacy left by his father Mick, who was at the helm of Keighley when they were denied a Super League place in the inaugural season in 1996.

Their opposition to the current proposals has seen them dub it a ‘cartel’ as they say that the bigger clubs are trying to protect themselves and keep a closed shop.

They have also hit out at failed attempts to expand the game, and said there should be a southern league for clubs like London to play in.

O’Neill told Forty20 recently: “Sky came in and invested in the sport and they were going to re-structure and merge clubs, create clubs in various parts of the country, and that didn’t happen. My dad and the board had spent a lot of money and just two weeks before Super League was announced, they had signed Daryl Powell from Sheffield Eagles and it cost them £135k. They had lots of sponsorship, blue chip sponsors.

“I think Keighley actually voted for it, which with hindsight was probably a mistake, because they got a bit of flack for doing that. They voted for it with the intention that they will be able to work with the RFL at the time to make it into a fair competition, but in the end it didn’t work out that way. They were stuck in the second division and as a result, they couldn’t finance that huge spend and lost sponsors and there was no opportunity.

“We took over in 2019, all enthusiastic, got promoted in 2022, and then all of a sudden, it’s like history repeating itself.”

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