Could we see new semi-pro clubs

Last week the Rugby Football League (RFL) announced that it is seeking applications from UK clubs to join the Co-operative Championships. In a statement the RFL confirmed that they wish to expand the Championship divisions, and hope for a number of clubs to consider joining the leagues over the course of 2012-15. Unsurprisingly the announcement has caused a flurry of speculation about which clubs will take the opportunity to turn semi-pro and gain a place in the Championship divisions.

The move comes just a few weeks after a consultation paper explaining RFL plans to reorganise the leagues was circulated among Championship clubs – see “A Licensed Future”, Eye on RL February 9th.

In that document the RFL proposed “that promotion and relegation between the Championship and Championship One will continue between 2012 and 2014, after which the RFL could also consider promotion and relegation between Championship One and the Conference Leagues, again dependent on clubs meeting minimum standards”. Reading between the lines, this suggests that the Championship might become a licensed competition, while C1 might become the highest level of the community rugby league structure.

The RFL also stated they would “actively seek expressions of interest from clubs currently playing outside Championship level to join the third tier competition”, and that’s what’s happening now.

A number of clubs have been suggested as possible applicants. The first on the list are Somerset Vikings who made the decision to turn semi-professional over the next five years at an AGM earlier this month. Bramley Buffaloes and Hemel Hempstead Stags are also speculated to be interested, while the list grows ever more speculative with Bristol Sonics, Coventry Bears, Northampton, Nottingham Outlaws, Warrington Wizards and a Welsh team all named as possible candidates.

What does this mean for the future? Well, it means that the RFL’s vision is most likely of a fully-licensed Championship, which may also include French clubs, while what is currently Championship One will be the highest level of the UK’s community leagues. It’s hard to tell anything much beyond this, but this appears to be what the RFL hopes to see in four or five years.

Indulging for a moment in idle speculation: there are 11 Championship clubs, so assuming the RFL might add two C1 clubs and another French side to make the required 14, that leaves eight C1 clubs. The RFL may then want to add four new clubs over the course of the next four seasons to make a 12-team league.

However, turning professional, even semi-pro, is going to be incredibly hard to do, and every single one of these clubs – as well as any others who might throw their aspirational hats into the RFL’s ring – will have to very realistic about whether it can be done. From the outside it can be very easy to look at Coventry Bears, for instance, and see a well-run club that has just moved into a higher division, playing in an excellent stadium and conclude they could turn semi-pro in a few seasons. The reality might be very different.

Will these clubs attract enough income from spectators and sponsors to be able to pay their players? Will clubs in the south be able to afford travel to the north for most of their away fixtures? Will they be able to have the off-field staff in place that can run a professional club? Will they have a squad good enough to compete? Are there enough good players in their area – in the current team, in youth teams or local union teams – who would wish to turn semi-pro? Will they be able to attract good players from the north to supply any lack?

That said if an amateur club believe they can turn semi-pro and make a success of Championship One there’s no reason why they shouldn’t give it a go. Established teams don’t have a monopoly on professional or league status. As well as this, several Championship One clubs – such as Doncaster, Gateshead and Rochdale – are currently paying win/lose money rather than keeping players on regular contracts, and amateur clubs could institute a similar arrangement as a more realistic and sustainable way of turning semi-pro.

In a way it’s a breath of fresh air to see expansion being encouraged at this – possibly more sustainable – level, rather than mad suggestions of Somerset or Hemel Hempstead making a bid for Super League in four years’ time. Now we just have to wait and see how many amateur clubs will give serious consideration to the RFL’s suggestion, and how many of those will actually be able to make the transition.

Keep Your Eye on Rugby League

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