Editor’s column: Does rugby league have a strategic disconnect with its stakeholders?

Photo: Tom Pearson / @OfficialBullsRL

As we nudge ever close to a return to normality, there are some things that never change.

Fresh off the back of the positives of getting the 2021 season underway and the return of fans, the RFL has received a lot of criticism over two issues in recent weeks – plans to introduce a community membership fee and the controversial selection of elite academies.

The former may well have been better received with better communication all round, as there appears to be a clear requirement for the governing body to meet Sport England’s sustainability criteria and to help fund the staff that operate the community game centrally.

The RFL is continuing to work with the community game to iron out any issues. Sally Lindsay said: “Money is needed in the centre and the centre does have a value; we understand people are passionate about the sport and want to see it thrive.”

As for the academies, there is nothing stopping clubs running development academies, but a lot of hysteria has been drummed up as if missing out on elite means the end of academies altogether.

That said, the situation regarding the academies does seem unfair. Super League clubs are rewarded with salary cap dispensation if they bring through their own players – the new elite academy licenses clearly put some clubs at a clear advantage in making that happen.

With both of the above, perhaps the wider involvement of rugby league – be it players, coaches, volunteers or fans – and communication of what it all means for the overall strategy of the game may have appeased some dissenters.

Should the RFL executive be elected?

Rugby league is the self-proclaimed ‘family game’, built around its tight knit communities that were central to its very foundation.

For the past 25 years, it has stumbled from one thing to another trying to find answers to questions all largely related to generating more money – whether that be from sponsors or otherwise.

It’s taken us through countless league structures, failed expansion projects and alienation of many fans as a result.

But can stakeholders of the game – like players, fans and sponsors – consider themselves to have been consulted or even aware of what the wider strategy for rugby league in the UK is, both now and in the future?

Given the size of rugby league and its importance to its largely otherwise ignored communities, maybe people should have more say in who drives the game forward.

Here’s an idea – if the RFL executive was elected, it would require candidates to lay out their ‘manifesto’ and then deliver on their promises within an agreed cycle.

Fans could then truly have their say, but most importantly, understand the context behind the decisions made.

Bending the rules

While it was great to see Bradford back at Odsal, their spiritual home and one of my favourite rugby league grounds, the nature of it makes me uncomfortable.

Given the Championship points system has been amended to work on points percentage, if the Bulls couldn’t find a suitable ground with a qualifying pitch size, then they should have been forced to postpone the game.

To bend the rules for the sake of two games just raises further eyebrows, particularly considering the involvement of Nigel Wood at Bradford and the RFL’s interest in Odsal.

It would be interesting to see what would happen if, say, a Swinton tried the same.

Think fan engagement

Another area where fans are seemingly forgotten is when clubs decide to re-brand.

Wigan are perhaps the most high-profile example of this in recent years, and their Executive Director Kris Radlinski has spoke on the Super League podcast about the process.

While you can understand the points Radlinski makes, to go through such a significant change with so little consultation just smacks in the face of the stakeholders of rugby league.

As Kevin Rye, from The Fan Engagement Index, said to me on Twitter: “Where do you start with this? They talk about it as though it’s a supermarket, not a club that people follow for all sorts of emotional and other reasons. Very concerning attitude.”

There seems to be an almost elitist attitude growing within rugby league, as it seeks to compete with the behemoths of football and rugby union.

They are in different leagues, and in the process, rugby league governance is losing touch with its own people.

The fact that Castleford, a small town club that generates a remarkable £6m turnover, are being alienated simply due to them being too close to Leeds and Wakefield, goes against everything that rugby league has built itself on.

But let’s end on a positive – and that is Coventry Bears’ win over Rochdale at the weekend.

The tireless work of Alan Robinson and everyone at Coventry should be the blueprint for true, sustainable expansion that adds to the player pool.

If League 1 could find another handful of clubs to follow that model, then rugby league would be better for it.

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