Editor’s column: What we haven’t learned in hindsight from Paris

You can’t help wonder what might have been while watching the first ever Super League game between Paris Saint Germain and Sheffield Eagles.

A concept that was perhaps years ahead of its time, although it threatened the dawn of a new era for rugby league, it’s almost stuttered to a halt some 24 years later.

Paris lasted just two seasons – before the concept of a Grand Final to crown the league champions had even been introduced – managing just nine wins in their two seasons.

You can bet with a promo code on Toulouse winning this season’s Championship to become the third French team – after Paris and Catalans – to grace Super League.

Their final game came on September 7, 1997, against Salford in the Premiership Trophy.

After winning that opening game against Sheffield, they managed just two further wins in the 22 game season and just survived relegation, finishing 11th. Club president Jacques Fouroux quit, and left the club in debt.

Crowds dwindled too after the extraordinary opening, which saw nearly 18,000 at Charlety. Their drop to just a third of that, 6,327 against Oldham a fortnight later, is perhaps seen as too much of a negative – as an average around that total would have been brilliant for a team in its first season.

They did see more than 15,000 against Leeds in May, and their last game of 1996 brought in 6,152 at home to Bradford.

They almost never made it to 1997, their turbulent maiden campaign leaving them 5m francs short of budget – before eventually managing to take to the field, albeit with just three French players – Pascal Bomati, Pierre Chamorin and Fabien Devecchi.

By July, they were attracting just 500 fans to games in Paris, having averaged less than 3,500 throughout the year. A reported 6,714 watched what turned out to be their last ever home game, a 23-12 win over Oldham on August 26, 1997.

Only two players from 1996 survived for the second season – Deon Bird and Jason Sands – with the theory that supporters didn’t care who played for the team.

Jeremy Robinson, Paris St Germain

A total of 22 players were recruited from Down Under and this proved to be the undoing, a contract scandal coming to light in August which saw contracts denounced to the authorities. The allegations were that the Australian players (plus one Kiwi) were playing on tourist visas to avoid paying certain taxes in France.

That resulted in the sporting club PSG – of which football is at the top – disconnecting itself from the franchise, forcing it to take a game on the road to Narbonne.

At the end of the season, they were expelled from Super League due to the financial issues.

It was the first expansion failure of the new competition, and more than two decades on, it’s a problem that it still hasn’t figured out.

We still largely have the same teams, playing in the same places – it’s just on Sky TV and in the summer now. The bright lights of Super League were meant to create powerhouses through mergers, rather than having the likes of Paris and London playing against the likes of Oldham and Workington.

When that didn’t happen, it already gave PSG a mountain to climb.

The reality is that rugby league isn’t a cash rich sport, and as such, any expansion projects are dependent on the bottomless pockets of a connected individual – see David Argyle at Toronto Wolfpack.

What that’s meant is there has been no clear strategy over the years for how Super League is going to make expansion stick – see the failed efforts in Gateshead and Wales since.

People say that Paris was a huge missed opportunity for rugby league – yet it only existed because of one man’s dream and money; and that’s simply not enough, especially when he either runs out of money or runs off altogether.

People say that they should have been given more time. But just where would the £5m-£10m annual funding come from to make that happen?

Now 24 years on, we have the trail blazing Wolfpack in the league. Who knows what the future holds. But perhaps the money that the Wolfpack haven’t been afforded in central funding, as per every other Super League club, should have been put in an “expansion” pot to help future Paris’s, Gateshead’s and others, rather than being frittered away by the chosen few.

Catalans remain the beacon of expansion for Super League – though of course, their club backdates to the 1930s. If the competition can’t make further French teams work, where there is at least an existing pool of players and a reasonable travel time for clubs, then the whole premise of a European (Northern Hemisphere) Super League should be called in to question.

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7 Comments

  1. Blinkered SL is killing the game. One day the penny will drop that Castleford V Salford will NOT set the global tv audience alight simply because they are not known. Wigan by reputation and Leeds are known, with possibly Hull and St Helens. Catalans is difficult to sell in that it’s an area rather than a city but in the rest of SL who else is REALLY known WORLD WIDE.
    London in the championship is not an easy sell but why London can’t have a leading team is an interesting mystery.
    SL now wants to be left alone and stand on its own. Well let it in this current situation. They have extra money by not sharing with Toronto and the whinging about them shows how out of touch with reality they are. Crikey people whinge about travelling between Huddersfield and Wakefield just a few miles. The future is not all that SL are trying to sell.

  2. My comment may not be relevant to the article,but I watched that game and thought how much better it was without 4/5 players laying on in tackles, tackler just getting up and playing the ball (with the foot) scrums seemed to resemble scrums. Plus no stupid shot clock, just a game of RL played with pace and not too much whistle blowing,, I realised I did enjoy Rugby played like that.

  3. I agree SL is shooting itself in the foot. It’s all “me me me”. With no care or support for the rest of the game. SL days are numbered.

  4. cardiff/bridgend, sth wales, mansfield/notts, kent/southend, hemel hemstead, gloucester, oxford.nobody got the idea yet? it doesnt work. throw in dodgy money mergers sheff/hudds, gatehead/hull.bramley not allowed to re enter, when sheff were. blackpool and its splinters left to wither.club directors buying amateur clubs for building developement. hudds finishing bottom but no relegation because they had a nice new ground clubs allowed extra foreign players because they play in or near london. part time players expected to go to canada maybe 3 times. lions lead by donkeys and spivs

  5. The RL fans who have zero IQ for financial viability or business sense are also a big reason why RL outside of Australasia can’t grow. It’s one wacky idea after another, makes my head spin. The same folk also have a fetish for bashing the RFL and SL administrations regardless of whether they’re right in their decision-making or not.

    This noise-to-signal-ratio is also why the good ideas (signal) get drowned out by the bad ideas (noise), and why nobody at the top bothers to look at what fans are saying. Because the fans, at least the loud ones, are wrong or oblivious 90% of the time.

    Anyways, what I’d personally recommend the SL and RFL to concentrate on more is promotion and marketing. This is one thing that’s entirely in their own hands. Brand awareness is everything. It’s better to have a sport where your stars are in the news for all the wrong reasons, like in the NRL, than to not have them on the news at all.

    RFL and SL should instruct all their clubs to have online activity on youtube and social media, and encourage players to do the same. They should be contractually obligated to make a certain amount of tweets. Clubs should post highlight and BTS footage of their games. RFL should have a design and marketing team that they could have offer their services to all the clubs. Help them with their logos, banner design, leaflets, online marketing strategy, etc.

    RFL doesn’t even upload highlights for most of their games. All games should have highlights, and they should be between 8-12 minutes long, not bloody 2-4 minutes. SL should do the same.

    Rugby League needs to appear cool to the British public and to foreign audiences. RL players should seem relatable or someone you look up to. Basketball and soccer relies on this pop culture element a lot whereas RL is completely outside mainstream consciousness. Make the sport more palatable to people of color. There’s a healthy Jamaican playerbase so use that to your advantage to appeal to Caribbean and black communities. Use SBW to appeal to the broader Muslim and MENA communities in the UK, France and Canada. Instruct the French clubs to do the same. There’s a huge market potential in North Africa and the French-speaking world for Rugby League.

    RFL and FFR13 should also start a clothing line. Call it Rugby 1985 or Rugby XIII, respectively? (With an ‘England’ and ‘France’ subtitle beneath the logo) In the US most people don’t watch soccer but the soccer jersey has become quite popular as a fashion statement. In many parts of the world basketball isn’t popular but people wear basketball shoes. The long-sleeve striped rugby shirt is another fashion icon. Ralph Lauren Rugby was a whole fashion line they used to have back in the 90s and 2000s. RFL and FFR13 should be doing that, emulating what US Polo Assn. (the actual governing body for US polo) did in emulating Ralph Lauren’s success in capitalizing off the Polo shirt. This is the foot in the door of pop culture and mainstream consciousness.

  6. In response to the post by “Anonymous” 26/04/2020, Rugby League in recent years has been making big strides in appealing to a broad section of the UK population, not just people who live around the northern M62 corridor. Broadcasters such as ADRIAN DURHAM on his hugely successful TALKSPORT DRIVETIME SHOW regularly promotes Rugby League, as does football legend STUART PEARCE. Secondly, Black players were playing Rugby League for club & country in the 1960’s and ’70’s before they became involved in Football at the highest level, a Black player played AND CAPTAINED Great Britain’s RL team which won the World Cup in France in 1972, whereas in Football, it wasn’t until 1979 when the first Black player was picked to play for England. In addition, Black players in RL did not suffer the overt racism from the stands which Black players (for example Paul Canoville & Alex Williams were forced to endure in the 1970’s and ’80’s. In terms of promotional initiatives going forward, I would love to see the introduction of colour coded head guards to be worn by Rugby League players in all three divisions. These head guards would have the same colours and pattern as the shirts, so for example, Leeds Rhino’s would be blue and yellow and Wigan’s players would wear red and white ones. I think that it would greatly improve the marketability of clubs to a wider audience as well as greatly reducing the amount of serious head injuries which RL players sustain as the sport increasingly becomes more combative & the players nowadays are bigger and stronger than in years gone by.

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