BLOG: Has rugby league moved forward since 2004?

Rugby league is once again awash with debate as to what to do with the game’s structure moving forward.

Cries for top of the league to be crowned champions, further tweaks or the possible abolition of the controversial Super 8s system and even increasing (or decreasing) the number of teams in Super League are being debated on social media.

The sport has got itself into a dangerous cycle of constant changes and it got me thinking – has the game moved forward at all since 2004?

Why 2004 you might ask. This was the last fairly stable year before changes started happening.

Super League had 12 teams. Top six play-offs. Bottom team relegated.

National League 1 had 10 teams. Top six play-offs. One team promoted via play-offs. Bottom team relegated. Second bottom team in relegation play-off.

National League 2 had 10 teams. Top team promoted. Rest of top six in play-offs with second bottom team from NL1. Two teams promoted.

There was even a National League 3, won by current League 1 side Coventry Bears, which had 14 teams.

Leeds won the Grand Final for the first time (against Bradford in front of 65,547 at Old Trafford), Castleford went down on the final day of the season following that infamous match against Wakefield, Leigh earned their first promotion to Super League with a dramatic extra time victory over Whitehaven in the Grand Final, Halifax survived relegation to NL2 via the play-offs, while Barrow went up to NL1 in place of Keighley.

The Challenge Cup final saw 73,734 watch St Helens beat Wigan and we still had the glorious Northern Rail Cup, this year won by Leigh over Hull KR.

Internationally, Great Britain beat Australia for the first time in a tournament in 31 years (24-12 at Wigan), but lost the Tri-Nations final to the Kangaroos.

There were two live Super League games on Sky Sports each week (Friday and Saturday), with a National League 1 game live on the Thursday night.

Super League average crowd: 8,833

National League 1 average crowd: 1,482

National League 2 average crowd: 726

So where has it all gone wrong since then?

In 2005, an extra relegation place was added to Super League to accommodate the inclusion of Catalan Dragons. Widnes became the first team to be relegated from 11th place.

They were joined in 2006 by Castleford, who were also relegated from 11th place due to Catalan finishing bottom and being exempt from relegation for three years.

While Catalan have added colour to Super League, the French league has not moved forward, the development of French players doesn’t seem to have and England are now having to fly halfway across the world to play Samoa in a mid-season test because even with 10 years of Super League, France can’t generate reasonable opposition.

Castleford and Widnes played the last National League 1 Grand Final with promotion riding on it in 2007, Castleford coming out on top in front of a sell-out 20,814 crowd at Headingley, a National League record – and three times bigger crowd than the acclaimed Million Pound Game between Hull KR and Salford last season (6,562).

Great Britain went on to beat Australia in Sydney in 2006 (the first time since 1988), but GB was then scrapped the following year following the whitewash test series win over New Zealand.

In 2008, promotion and relegation to Super League was scrapped in favour of a licensing system. The league was increased to 14 teams. Salford and Celtic Crusaders were awarded licenses for 2009-2011.

That meant a glass ceiling for the Championship for the next six years, something which Featherstone Rovers suffered much from. Despite this, Featherstone are the only one of the three clubs in their area to have made significant ground improvements since 2004, which was one of the cornerstones of the whole licensing process.

The Super League play-offs was increased to the top eight teams, and Leeds were able to win the title twice from fifth place.

French team Toulouse joined the Championship for 2009-2011, with the view to achieving the on-field criteria to enable them to apply for a Super League licence in 2012. They failed, miserably.

As a result of Toulouse’s inclusion, the National Leagues 1 and 2 were rebranded to Championship and Championship One (later amended to League One).

In 2011, the next round of Super League licences were up for grabs. Widnes, despite not winning the league or appearing in a Grand Final, earned a licence for 2012 having met the on-field criteria by winning the 2009 Northern Rail Cup. In dramatic fashion, Crusaders exited Super League having pulled out at the 11th hour on the day the licenses were announced, giving a reprieve to Wakefield.

Also in 2011, the amateur game was switched from winter to summer, to align it with the professional game. This has seen participation numbers decline and you don’t have to look far for stories of community teams folding as a result.

Come 2014, Super League was reduced back down to 12 teams – London and Bradford making way having finished in the bottom two – and the current Super 8s concept was introduced (I won’t bother explaining how this works, as that’s another article in itself).

A consequence of the Super 8s was live Championship rugby league disappeared from our screens entirely (with the exception of the new Summer Bash), a huge backward step and a massive reduction in exposure for the second tier.

The third tier, now called League 1, has a mix of expansion and traditional clubs – many of whom are now crippled by the extraordinary travel costs associated with such a league. It is crying out for some sort of North/South split to save the clubs.

Another issue with the Super 8s is that a quarter of the season is completely unknown until the end of July – meaning it’s impossible to plan whether you can get to seven of your club’s games. This is turning people away from buying season tickets, as they can’t be sure whether they aren’t going to miss any games. Rugby league has always been a season ticket sport.

The live Saturday game was replaced by televised Sky games on Thursdays and Mondays, though Mondays have since disappeared once again.

Sky claim there is more rugby league broadcast than before, assisted by the fact they broadcast all Catalans home games. But their highlights and magazine shows of previous years have long since disappeared.

In 2016, based on regular season (first 23 rounds) attendances have stagnated despite all the glitz and glamour around changes that were supposedly meant to make things more exciting, compelling, innovative etc.

The average Super League attendance has, in 13 years, increased by just 301 (up to 9,134).

Fast forward to today in 2017. Here we are. All that wasted energy and change in the past 13 years – has it really taken the game forward?

What we should have been doing is taking 2004 forward and increasing participation (especially outside the heartlands), improving marketing, and crucially, commercial opportunities. Can anyone honestly say that’s been done since?

18 Comments

  1. If you look at last seasons average attendance in the championship & compare it to 2004 how can you sat things have gone wrong?

    • The average in 2015 was 1,773 – inflated quite significantly by Bradford. An increase of 291 from 2004. I’ve not got the figures for 2016, but I doubt it’s much higher than that.

  2. Hi James,

    Without sounding too brutal the game is dead. I am lifelong Halifax fan living in Widnes and I have gradually over the years seen every aspect of the game suffer whilst our 15 a side neighbors have gone from strength to strength (with current TV revenue outstripping the need for actual fans to go and watch; but yet according to Dave and Pete from Cas Rugby League is still a bigger sport than Union…yep just ask Denny).

    For me there a number of reasons:

    1). The RFL. Where do you start. Nigel Wood seems intent on lying to everyone about the health of the game. Fan numbers are dwindling, viewing numbers are dwindling, amateur clubs shutting up shop because people simply don’t want to play, Toronto and Toulouse doing what they want and good old Nige agreeing to online broadcast deals which actually don’t work…and that is only 10% of the problems.

    2). Common sense. There is none in anything that happens in Rugby League.

    3). Sky Sports. They have ruined coverage with their general disinterest in the game (shown with reduction in coverage and farcical broadcasting), their commentary team which makes my ears bleed and a sheer lack of knowledge. I would rather watch DIY SOS.

    4). Commerciality. I may be burnt here but hey ho; most Rugby League clubs are managed by people stuck in 1996, including my own. The clubs exist to make money; that’s it. My own club Halifax who I sent a detailed business and comms plan to last year (I have some experience of P&L management and branding) to improve revenue and fan retention. What did I get back? Nothing. The clubs do not help themselves with poor financial management; why would any sponsor with any acumen want to get involved?

    5). Quality. Remember looking forward to a game? That has gone now. In my last 2 Grand Final visits I have left just after the first half. It’s terrible. What do these players do all week apart from visit Costa and post naff endorsements on Twitter?

    I could write more but I am bored. Hopefully I can get my Rugby League mojo back but I don’t see it happening. I know Dave and Pete will be crushing their cans of Skol together but Rugby League fans need to wake up and smell the coffee. The game is sinking and I cannot see anything saving it apart from a brand new terrestrial TV deal, new governing body, review of current coaching strategies to improve skill levels but most importantly a financial framework brought in to properly manage budgets controlled by an external body.

    Much love. Gledders

  3. Why ask a question in the article’s title then only bother to explore one answer? An argument that we have progressed is the fact there were only Leeds and Bradford with a decent chance of winning the SL in 2004. This year there are at least four realistic contenders in Cas, Leeds, Saints and Wigan, with Hull, Salford and Wakefield all having good years as well.

    • All having good years!!! Its the worst standard of superleague ever. The game is dead. And teenage drop out is worse than its ever been. The future of the community gane is a massive concern

  4. Interesting view James but i think you missed the major reason why the game is crumbling.

    The international game is absolute dross. We do not play remotely as much top level test matches.

    Around 2004 we had regular international football with every one of the ‘big three’ hosting high profile test matches EVERY year.

    The international game was actually making money and generating genuine interest outside of the heartlands. International league had momentum. But it was was ‘too much’ football and that got the clubs in both hemispheres upset.

    We disbanded the Tri Nations for a much shorter micky mouse Four Nations, replaced the Great Britain Lions with England so that these ‘developing’ nations can supposedly get better. Time to wake up League fans – Nobody plays or cares about the game in Scotland and Ireland. Scotland with a full 17 of yorkshiremen and aussies playing in the Four Nations is a slap in the face to real rugby league nations like France and Papua New Guinea.

    In Wales the sport has always had a glimmer of profile but what is the incentive now (if you are a young lad from Valleys) if the best you can do is play in front of a thousand people in Wrexham or wherever – Yet a decade ago this kid could have been lining up with a yellow Lion’s head on his shirt to take on the best of the best. If we wanted to grow the game and take it the principality then surely a regular high profile Lions test at somewhere like Swansea’s Liberty Stadium would have been a better place to start.

    And lastly the World Cup. 14 teams? We need to crawl before we can walk before we can run guys.

  5. “Moved forward”, in which way would you like?
    1) Number of attendees
    2) Geographic coverage
    3) Quality of play
    4) Money made by the players, owners, administrators

    1) Static, but based on the plethora of alternative forms of entertainment nowadays not to mention the ageing demographic of the fans I’d say that’s a win
    2) Northern emigrees continue to bang the drum and put considerable time and money into the clubs they have created or taken over but the RL weekly media don’t even publish attendence figures for most League 1 games, possibly for fear of embarrassment.
    3) Quality can be a subjective measure, personally I am watching more games than ever including SL (season ticket holder at Huddersfield), NRL and my local club in NCL 1 (Underbank Rangers) and enjoy the vast majority. Surely it’s the competition between two teams on the day that’ provides the excitement, not how they handle the ball compared with previous teams – even though I do consider today’s athletic skills to be superior to any other team sport.
    4) Presumably those who make a living from the game consider themselves to be fairly compensated or they would do something else. I’m not surprised at the continual tinkering with the structure, if you’re in business and attempt to convince your investors that “it seems to going OK , I don’t feel we need to change anything” you’d soon be on your way for lack of innovative thinking. Next year’s new direction equals another 12 months in the job!! Cynical, me?

  6. Work hard to re-invigorate the international scene with Australia and New Zealand. Shorten the season to give better chance to compete. Beat them and improve the game on the back of it

  7. Sadly, all too typical negative blog fed into by the disenchanted and the utterly miserable who only ever want to talk about how terrible it all is. They either are trolls or might as well be.

  8. The game almost died in York last December , new owner has seen a massive improvement in attendance and on the pitch no one gave us a chance after losing half the team during the uncertainty last year. Currently 4th in Lge 1 going into the 8’s which start with Toronto at home this Sunday. Toronto will help our game , already there is talk of a new TV deal for 2018 across North America with , as I’m sure you know an audience of millions.

  9. The standard of refereeing, especially the bias of certain refs towards certain teams leads non rl diehards to believe the game is a joke. The rfl just stay and the sidelines and say and do nothing. The fans are fed up of buying season tickets they can’t use because the games are changed at late notice usually at the broadcasters behest. The rfl just do nothing. The on field product is far superior to anything that gets 10 times more exposure but the marketing by the rfl is rubbish. The disciplinary system is a joke. Wonderful game run by short sighted muppets.

  10. There a lot of passionate, articulate people making a lot of good points and common sense. These are the people who should be overseeing the game! I try to choose my words carefully. At present there are people with grand titles who are running the game, not overseeing, running the game. These people are just as passionate but they miss the point of what is their role. Example, as a 10yr old, I watched my first live game and understood every minute. Forty years later, work has taken me away from RL heartland, can I explain the game and the rules to another adult? In that period of time a lot of changes are essential and some are innovative, but some are baffling. The point I’m making is that for the game to make progress it needs a wider audience whether in this country or any other country. If I, as a passionate RL fan can not make any converts, how can any equally passionate fan especially those whose responsibility it is to do so. I haven’t any answers, only suggestions and opinions, it’s not my job. For those whose job it is, need to prove their worth and find some method of proving it other than just saying it. TV money is good but what would happen if SKY get bored, how would RL react? Whatever changes are made, it must be for the benefit fans and new fans.

  11. As an RL fan for 60 years I find the James Gordon article and the resulting comments interesting, intelligent, informative and in parts a little bit depressing.Then I read
    Gavin Wilson’s blog on the Toronto match experience and it lifted my mood. This has got to be the way forward….the match party with music, entertainment ,barbecues after match party with the players and more. Add to this, TV and social media promotion with a promotion guru appointed and paid on results…and we can make progress.(If we rely on the national press we can give up now).
    It is easy to criticise the RFL but they have been innovative in many ways eg video refs, rule changes that the RU has copied in different ways ie try/goal points differentials. rentention of possession for more open play and several others. They(the RU)have improved their game by making it more like ours but they have the massive advantage of wealthy backers and participators including the landed media.
    We just have to keep trying. Two great Challenge Cup semis on the BBC would have helped but on a midsummer I can envisage a lot of people not watching telly.
    Two further points.1 Let’s put the roll back at the play the ball into the rule book as legal, for the sake of integrity.
    2. Set up an Anglo-French committee for the sole purpose of promotion of the game in France. As another contributor has said..international competition is ABSOLUTELY VITAL.

  12. To be honest , I believe that rugby league is falling apart. I’m 18 and from the United States, and league is looking alright down here, quarterfinal appearance on the first try, but the people who are running the RLIF and the RFL are pretty greedy, the game is slowly dying in the homeland, when I was little I’d watch Super League, Championship and the NRL on Fox now with Sky killing it I have to pay in order to watch. Internationally, the game is growing teams like the USA and Canada and Jamaica are making great progress but the major powers aren’t helping out, it’s ridiculous, that the British Lions were scrapped, only to return in 2019 and that the World Cup is at 14 teams instead of 16 or 20 teams. In all of this there’s no structure, the hierarchy in both club and international levels is ruined. Simple as that, PUT PEOPLE WHO LOVE THE GAME, WANT THE GAME TO SUCCEED, WHO HAVE PLAYING EXPERIENCE TO RUN THE GAME, NOT POLITICIANS OR MONEY LAUNDERERS. In order for the game to grow, real people need to run it.

  13. The problem with the sport is the RFL. We should let the NRL run the entire sport. They don’t feel the need to kowtow to others. They’re better equipped to run the sport than the RFL. If the RFL were paid by the RFU to drive the game out of existence they couldn’t be doing a better job. They’re not up to the job.

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