Editor’s column: The rugby league soap opera?

James Gordon
TV camera

Ian Lenagan stole the show at the Wigan Warriors media day to preview the 2021 season.

He provided good value on a plethora of Super League related topics – from the Robert Elstone debacle, Toronto, TV deals and even had time to re-ignite the cross-Pennine battle for supremacy with Leeds counterpart Gary Hetherington.

There are often calls for a return of the Origin fixtures between Lancashire and Yorkshire on the field (PS. great to see a women’s equivalent of that rivalry in the calendar) – but maybe a winner takes all battle between the 12 Super League club chairmen would have a greater impact on the sport.

Some might disagree, but I don’t have a problem with the likes of Lenagan addressing the media. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed the listen. To be open and transparent with the “rugby league family” is necessary to re-build the trust that is being lost between those at the top and fans of the game over recent years.

And ultimately, they’re the ones with the purse strings. They are the ones who have to put their hands in their pockets when things go wrong.

You or I can come up with a million and one ideas or theories; yet it’s only they that have the true picture.

This quote on Toronto was telling: “I’ve seldom seen such a rubbish document put forward. It’s time someone said, ‘If you actually knew the appalling nature of the proposals that were put forward, you wouldn’t keep coming back to the Toronto issue.”

The streaming condundrum

The trouble is, while rugby league continues to bicker amongst itself in this country, it’s becoming increasingly anonymous.

The announcement that in Super League rounds 3-5, only two weekly games will be broadcast live on Sky Sports – with the others only available to season ticket holders at the respective clubs via the Our League app – in the middle of a pandemic perhaps reflect how hamstrung the sport is.

You can watch 20 Premier League games a week across BT, Sky, Amazon or BBC, whoever happens to be showing it, and yet rugby league fans will be limited to just two elite-level games.

Rugby league is reliant on the SKY TV money and is stuck between a rock and a hard place – it can’t explore other areas through fear of losing any Sky money. Yet as visibility diminishes, so will the Sky money.

It’s a problem that a lot of minor sports leagues are facing up to. The big powerhouses like Premier League football, the NFL, NBA and even the NRL, are all bankrolled by significant TV deals in their home countries which enables them to almost effortlessly put out high quality productions overseas.

We’re now at a point where NRL coverage in the UK is far superior to that of Super League – you can watch every game and every magazine show on demand for an annual pass of £130; equivalent to barely three months of a Sky Sports subscription.

It will be interesting to see what the make up of the new broadcast deal is and just how bold the RFL can afford to be with their Our League platform.

Aside from that, the rugby league woes analysed by Lenagan are nothing new.


Whoever’s side you might be on in the Lenagan/Hetherington debate, the Leeds chief was proved right that splitting from the RFL would end in disaster – because like with most things rugby league, it was done in a half-arsed, unassertive manner.

READ: John Kear calls on Super League and RFL to come together again

Super League splits from the RFL, but then goes and gets the bulk of its staff from the governing body that it had previously deemed wasn’t doing a good enough job.

A non-executive chairman is recruited on a large salary but is ultimately powerless as the 12 club chairmen seek to preserve their powers.

Let’s re-brand some club logos without engaging those that matter the most – the fans.

You could add the questionable implementation of licensing and even the advent of Super League as two other ideas which were reasonable on paper, but not executed as intended.

And now, having snubbed an open goal of an opportunity to scrap just TWO rounds of loops fixtures (excluding Magic Weekend) in a World Cup year, Super League chiefs are bemoaning the international window.

Forget whether it should be the Exiles or not – England haven’t played a game since 2018 and it’s the World Cup at the end of this year in this country, largely in rugby league territory.

If those in charge of the second biggest competition in the world don’t believe that the international game is worth accommodating, then there’s a problem.

The Exiles concept is expected to return this year

How can rugby league get back on the front foot?

Look at how players profiles can be raised – be it through sponsorships, merchandise, anything. In the age of social media, things like eSports, video games, collector cards, influencer endorsements – do just as much as live sport itself in raising the profile of athletes.

Ask why sponsors are reluctant to part with cash, and do something about it. Don’t be giving up free deals to pizza companies. Play on the game’s strengths to show its value, even at a small level. At the moment, it doesn’t feel like the game is creating any opportunities for itself to show its worth, let alone grow its worth.

Explore the streaming opportunities in a sensible manner. Of course, Sky are pivotal to the game. But work with them to ask questions and see just how the opportunity of streaming games can be monetised – even outside of Super League.

Get back to basics. Analyse what clubs are doing and set minimum standards. Even things like fixture lists and ticket prices are hard to find on some club websites.

ALSO READ: Six hopes for rugby league in the New Year

Are Super League’s biggest clubs as big as they can be? Are the heartlands really as strong as they ought to be?

And just who, and how, is someone going to take responsibility in choosing a path and going down it, and not just flirting with it for a couple of years and backtracking?

At the moment, it just feels like we’re in a never ending cycle of fighting amongst ourselves; and at some point, we’re going to have killed each other.

Rugby League Nostalgia is here! Get involved with Love Rugby League’s new group on Facebook to share all your rugby league nostalgia and celebrate the rich heritage of our sport.