Challenge Cup is our showpiece

The Carnegie Challenge Cup semi finals are almost upon us, and if proof was needed as to the importance of this competition to rugby league in this country it was provided by the BBC. The BBC have made proposals for additions to the list of sports events that by law have to be broadcast on free-to-air television. The Challenge Cup final is the only rugby league event on that prestigious list.

The Wembley final is on the “A3 list” of events. The “A1 list” consists of events important to the whole of the UK, and includes just the Summer and Winer Olympic Games, the FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championships. The “A2 list” is for those events of importance to the individual home nations, while the “A3 list” is for other “pinnacle sports events”.

Here the Challenge Cup final sits alongside the rugby union World Cup final, Wimbledon men’s and women’s singles finals, the Grand National and the Derby. The BBC hopes to add both cricket World Cup finals to this list.

The fact that no other rugby league event is on this list speaks volumes, especially in the weeks after the announcemen that the 2013 World Cup will be held in the UK. Neither that event, nor any other internationals, nor the engage Super League Grand Final are even named in the BBC’s proposed additions to the “B List” of sports which should always have highlights screened on free-to-air television.

This underlines the importance of the Challenge Cup final as the prestige rugby league event in this country. In terms of both attendance (82,821 versus 68,810 last season, and I know Old Trafford is smaller than Wembley but it wasn’t sold out here) and television audience it overshadows the Super League Grand Final. Okay, the reason for this is circular: the cup final appears bigger because it is on the BBC live rather than the restricted Sky audience that can watch the Grand Final. However, if rugby league is to gain geater media exposure across the board it needs to play to its strengths, and the Challenge Cup is certainly one of those.

The reason that this needs to be pointed out is a tendency among rugby league fans to relegate the Challenge Cup to Super League in terms of importance. This is shown in lower attendances; understandable to an extent given the expense and that often fixtures are against unfashionable opponents, but teams like Leeds and St Helens can see crowds more than halved.

Sky Sports are also often responsible for talking down the cup, subtly, with comments such as “Well, now back to the real business of Super League”. Again, this is understandable to an extent given that Sky don’t want to spend too much time publicising a tournament broadcast by another company, but Sky don’t seem to act the same way about other tournaments they don’t broadcast.

(In fact it’s almost a unique situation in rugby league, not seen in other sports. Sky have Super League so belittle the Challenge Cup; the BBC have the Challenge Cup so, let’s face it, they belittle Super League.)

It’s true that it is the Challenge Cup final itself rather than the whole tournament which is a big event, but, of course, there would be no final without the tournament. If the tournament continues to lose its appeal, one day the Wembley final will begin to do likewise. That would be a terrible shame for the showpiece of British rugby league. 

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