An undue influence

It’s only a year on from the RFL’s Super League license decision and already preparations are being made for the next round of applications. People have started to talk about which of the present fourteen are likely to miss out, and who could replace them in the top flight.

Widnes Vikings are currently the favourites to be awarded a place in Super League. Having won the Northern Rail Cup the Vikings were suddenly the subject of media attention, and were named as potential replacements after the RFL’s reminder to five Super League clubs – Castleford, Celtic, Salford, St Helens and Wakefield – that promises of new stadiums need to be fulfilled.

This all highlights a major flaw with the franchise system: the undue influence of the media on the outcome. Last season I wrote an article comparing the bids of favourites Celtic Crusaders with rank outsiders Featherstone Rovers. The bids seemed roughly equal to me; the only difference other than geography was the Crusaders’ status as favourites with the media. Of course Celtic had greater opportunity for sponsorship and publicity, but that only underlines the point: the media are uniquely influential in this process.

Now it’s the turn of Widnes to occupy the mantle as favourites. An article in Monday’s Rugby Leaguer and League Express carries the headline “Vikings are odds-on to enter Super League in 2012”, explaining that bookmakers William Hill are sufficiently impressed with the Vikings’ progress.

What progress is this exactly? All the plus points of Widnes’ application – and there are many – were in evidence this time last year: youth development, excellent facilities, decent crowds, etc. William Hill point to “improved off-field administration”, a reference to Steve O’Connor, but his administration was well in place by this time last year, so that’s scarcely a major change.

The only difference is the feeling among the media – for instance, Sky Sports and the rugby league press – that either one of Castleford Tigers and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats have had their day, and that Widnes are now a better bet. If the decision was next month it’s likely that this feeling would be hugely influential on the RFL, just like the media’s focus on the Crusaders last year.

This is a problem for two reasons. The first is that the RFL’s decision is not taken objectively or dispassionately, but rather under the intense glare of the media spotlight. The decision to include the Crusaders in Super League was seen as brave, but it was in truth the obvious decision for the RFL. Sky Sports, to name just one example, had the Crusaders picked for the Super League spot as early as 2006; imagine the fuss had the RFL not made that decision.

The other problem is that the whole business of franchise applications and talk of stadiums being of a certain standard detracts from the action on the field. This is especially so in the Co-operative Championship. Halifax, for instance, should be concentrating on maintaining their place at the top of the table, but instead are launching their bid for Super League in two years’ time.

It will be interesting to see whether Widnes remain as favourites and whether the pressure mounts on the RFL to remove either Castleford or Wakefield from the elite. Either way, the RFL will likely go with the flow and do what is expected of them.

Keep Your Eye on Rugby League

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