Challenge Cup’s bleak attendances prove something needs to change

Josh McAllister
Jake Connor Challenge Cup, SWPix.

Picture by Olly Hassell/

The Challenge Cup sixth round attendances prove something needs to change to entice fans back to the stands for the prestigious competition. 

All 12 Super League clubs entered the Challenge Cup during the previous round, with only four teams outside the top flight featuring.

It saw Halifax Panthers host St Helens in front of a crowd of 4,693, more than 2,000 than the side’s best in the Championship in 2023 so far at 2,146 (versus Bradford).

And once again it sparked the ongoing debate that Super League clubs should enter the Challenge Cup at an earlier stage, with the occasion one all Halifax supporters enjoyed, despite being knocked out of the competition 26-6 by Paul Wellens’ side.

The Challenge Cup should indeed provide more unique events and fixtures like that one, allowing fans to travel to a variety of stadiums and watch different teams.

St Helens took more than 1,100 fans to The Shay for the televised Friday night clash in the club’s first visit in 20 years, with a crowd of more than 4,000 something the Panthers will celebrate. 

The now four-peat champions also visited the Recreation Ground last year during their Challenge Cup campaign to face Whitehaven in another day that was celebrated by a lower-tier team. 

Back to 2023, only 4,249 attended the Mend-A-Hose Jungle on Sunday as Hull defeated Castleford 32-8, with season tickets not counting towards the cup competition.

It’s a bleak look for the sport, especially with the BBC cameras looking on.

And only 2,872 attended Saturday evening’s game between Salford and Huddersfield at the AJ Bell Stadium, with Viaplay cameras broadcasting the 82-point tie. 

York defeated London Broncos 36-12, cementing their place in the quarter-finals and drawing Leigh at home in what will be a day for celebration at the LNER Community Stadium.

Does the Challenge Cup need re-inventing?

As part of their ‘reimagining rugby league’ process, IMG should introduce Super League clubs at an earlier stage of the Challenge Cup in order to bring the magic back to the competition.

Instead, at the time of writing, fans are left with Wakefield facing Leigh (for the second time in recent weeks) and Warrington travelling to Catalans again (with a crowd of just more than 5,000 in Perpignan).

While the clash at Headingley Stadium on Saturday provided a highly entertaining game on the BBC, Yorkshire Evening Post have reported an attendance of only 7,103 for the tie that saw Wigan defeat Leeds 18-14.

Batley fans enjoyed a trip out to Hull KR on Friday night, although suffered a 50-0 score against Willie Peters’s side. But it was refreshing to see the Robins face opposition outside of the top flight – and for the first time since 2017.

Watching your team face a new side is something fans don’t get to see all that often, with all 10 League 1 sides and nine Championship clubs (excluding Toulouse) already knocked out by the sixth round. 

In football, Premier League sides enter the FA Cup in the third round alongside Championship, League One and League Two, as well as those non-league clubs remaining, allowing a chance for a “big team” to take on the underdogs.

In recent years, this has seen Northern Premier League’s Marine develop a relationship with Tottenham following their behind-closed-doors third round fixture in 2021, selling more than 30,000 virtual tickets and raising £300,000.

Of course, we can’t compare the two sports in football and rugby league – but it could be a path the latter should follow. Let’s get Super League teams in the Challenge Cup much earlier and facing new oppositions who will celebrate the occasion like their own final.

Do you think Super League clubs should enter the Challenge Cup earlier? Let us know in the comments below. 

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