Whilst rugby league in the UK continued its return with Bradford and Featherstone amongst others all getting minutes under the belt, another game was offering us a glimpse into the future. Catalan Dragons took on Toulouse in a pre-season match that highlights once again what we could be selling to a wider audience.
French Rugby League has been making plenty of off the field headlines recently but of focus for this week is the issues for Toulouse in this seasons RFL Championship and an elusive French TV deal.
Bad in hindsight, bad at the time
With the RFL now forced to rejig the fixtures for Toulouse, due to the problems of a full-time team outside the UK playing in a hybrid league, it’s a good time to look back at the decision last year on who would replace Toronto. As Love Rugby League editor James Gordon pointed out, it would’ve been a problem that was avoided if Toulouse had been put in Super League for next season. It would be unfair to criticise the decision in hindsight but as I thought it was a poor decision at the time, I don’t think it unfair to knock it again now.
Ironic that all this fuss over Toulouse could have been prevented by putting them in Super League…
— James Gordon (@jdgsport) March 5, 2021
This is no disrespect to Leigh, who actually pulled in decent crowds when they were last in Super League but if the panel were going to be insular in their choice, then why weren’t play-off finalists Featherstone given the nod?
The UK equivalent of last year’s decision not to pick Toulouse would be to reject a city like Leeds with its potential fan-base and commercial opportunities for, well, Leigh. Which brings us to that mythical French TV deal.
Getting a TV deal
At the end of 2019, Catalan Dragon games in France were lost to UK viewers with a deal unable to be reached in France and subsequently, Sky would not have access to be able to cover games. Whatever people think of Sky, it was another clear failure by the sport to offer value to the company funding the game and a failure in exposure for the game in France.
However, no sooner has Elstone gone than reports have indicated that Catalans games are returning to broadcaster BeIN Sports in France and, in all likelihood, available on Sky Sports in the UK.
— Love Rugby League (@loverugbyleague) March 16, 2021
Although this is undoubtedly a positive as Super League needs to demonstrate what it can offer a UK broadcaster, we also need to examine why Catalans cannot get a paid deal. Well imagine that the French Elite competition was Super League and it was Wakefield playing in France, with no other UK team. You have your answer.
Some people may think that doubling down on two French teams could be the classic sunk cost fallacy but the reality is that Catalans and Toulouse in Super League is a winning hand.
With two French teams, a broadcaster gets a guaranteed home game a week and can have a reciprocal deal with Sky for the games French teams are away.
Chuck in a France vs England international and we’ve got a minimum viable product here. Of course, broadcasters want certainty but if we’re not prepared to ring-fence Toulouse in Super League (as suggested last week) then the minimum has to be to make it easier for them to be in Super League, by expanding it.
The reduction of money to the RFL Championship is a shame as you could argue that the Championship has never been in better shape. Whether it is the modern facilities in the thriving economic hubs (Covid notwithstanding) of Newcastle and York or Featherstone offering more rivalry games for the heartland teams, there’s enough teams in the RFL Championship that would increase the value of the Super League product. Hell, even Widnes are no longer a basket case and still have excellent facilities at their disposal.
It makes no sense that Super League are scrabbling around with loop fixtures when the answer, increasing Super League to 14 teams, is staring them in the face, even without Toulouse.
What’s there Toulouse?
There is no editorial line on this website (to my knowledge) but I think it’s safe to say that many of us believe that, based on what the game is offering right now, we’ve milked the cow dry. If Super League really is on a ‘prove it’ deal, then what better time to have a genuine expansion. If that means a slight reduction per club in TV money in Super League, well certain Super League clubs lack of ability to generate other revenue streams should not be used to block the door to teams like Toulouse, Newcastle and York who could.
Catalans vs Newcastle, Toulouse vs Leeds and a guaranteed three game French Super League rivalry will more than prove that Rugby League is a thriving international game.
A 14 team Super League with two French teams… we’ve nothing to lose.
MORE FROM ED: French Rugby League – Keeping the momentum