Exclusive: IMG boss discusses Super League gradings, London controversy and competition rebrand

Aaron Bower
Castleford Tigers and London Broncos IMG Alamy

In the lead-up to the new Super League season, Love Rugby League has sat down to learn more about IMG’s plans to revolutionise rugby league with their Vice President of sports management, Matt Dwyer, in a series of exclusive interviews.

Part one covered the unprecedented broadcast coverage Super League is about to experience this year, more detail on how IMG plan to market the game’s superstars to a mass audience and what the increase in coverage could mean long-term. That can be viewed below – this is part two, discussing the all-important gradings system and much more.

PART ONE: Exclusive: IMG’s Matt Dwyer discusses Super League+, capitalising on increased exposure and marketing superstars

The buzz is incredible, the coverage is unprecedented: but for many Super League fans, the one thing everyone will be talking about more than anything else this year – whether IMG like it or not – is gradings.

There was almost a wry grin on Dwyer’s face when I mentioned it was time to turn the interview towards the grading system, as if he had been mentally prepared to be bombarded with questions about the system that will now shape which clubs are in Super League, and which clubs aren’t. It will rage all year long but, several months down the line from the provisional gradings being unveiled – and the headlines which accompanied that – you wonder if things have shifted somewhat.

Gradings was deemed the root of all evil by some supporters – and more importantly, some clubs – when it was confirmed. But as we approach the first full season of the system going live, does Dwyer sense a shift in perception and, dare he even whisper it, an optimism about how it is being received?

“The vast majority of people, I think, can see the changes happening in front of their eyes now,” he tells Love Rugby League.

“We’ve updated the clubs recently and gone through the different things we’re observing, but you can see the clubs are taking it on board and they get it. It’s more than just what’s happening on the field, they know they need to get it right off it.

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“We’ve been really pleased with it all, and there’s a lot of positive news about things happening that impact grading – whether that be new investment, new facilities or even clubs making a real effort on their digital and social fronts. The buy-in from the clubs has been really positive.”

2024 begins with seven clubs already in the elite Grade A bracket: St Helens, Wigan, Leeds, Catalans, Warrington, Hull FC and Hull Kingston Rovers. Dwyer and IMG have already stated that when Super League is comprised of entirely Grade A clubs, expanding the competition becomes a distinct possibility.

“It was only when we sat down and worked out what the levels and scores should be that we realised there were a few clubs who were performing and in the end, we ended up with seven Grade A clubs,” he explains.

“I think we’re getting close to what we said was our ultimate aim – 12 Grade A clubs, because then you can go to 14 and 16 and so on. As I sit here today versus when we announced it, I think we’re definitely progressing at a really quick rate towards that ultimate objective which is really pleasing.”

The likes of Salford and Wakefield are quietly confident they can reach an A grading before the end of this year: but what about Dwyer? Does he envisage more clubs jumping up to the highest banding in the immediate term?

“I don’t really know,” he says. “What’s more important for me is we see teams progressing across the board. That’s more important than the number of As. If we get a load of B clubs that are upping their scores and getting closer to the A Grade level, that’s the important part of what we’re trying to do, as opposed to whether it’s seven or eight or nine Grade A clubs.”

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One issue that it is impossible to ignore with grading though, is the situation surrounding London Broncos. Promoted against all the odds last season from the Championship, reality quickly hit home when they were placed 24th in IMG’s provisional gradings.

Mike Eccles London Broncos Alamy
London Broncos boss Mike Eccles

Does it complicate IMG’s message in trying to convince the world their system is foolproof, when one club will almost certainly be ushered out of the elite competition at the end of the year – even if they won the Grand Final?

“I don’t think it complicates things,” Dwyer insists. “If you go back to the beginning, we made it clear that the approach we were taking is we wanted to get clubs to a certain level, because that’s where we think we can market the sport properly.

“What we’ve provided everyone with is a roadmap of how they go from where they are now, up to that level. Whether you’re the club ranked 24th, 16th or wherever, it’s sort of the same. You know what you need to do to get to the level you need to be to be in consideration for the top league.

“The 2024 season was always going to be a transition season, there were always possibilities there would be unique scenarios that won’t be repeated again because of the way we’re structured after this.

“Having one of those come through is not surprising, it was always possible, but the main point is that the club you’re referring to, they’re taking the attitude of knowing where they are today and where they need to be. So they’re making plans to get to that point, because they want to be an established top tier club in this country.”

The big reveal in regards to gradings will take place towards the end of the year – well in advance of the Championship Grand Final, so that clubs participating in that game know where they stand.

Clubs are able to track relatively well where they sit as the year progresses – and IMG will update them at various points as the year moves on. But there will be no ‘live’ system for clubs to be able to go on and get an exact score for a number of reasons: most notably because IMG want the focus to be on driving the game forwards, not obsessing over scores.

“There will be certain update points throughout the year,” Dwyer reveals. “You can’t really do it live because the financial data comes out once a year and it’s lagged by a season.

“What we didn’t want to do is make it so onerous. The clubs have a big role to play in providing the data and you don’t want to make it so onerous that they spend all their time collecting data rather than doing the stuff you actually need them to be doing to improve their grade.

“The actual process is not that big, but if you were going to make it live it would be a big thing for them to have to do. That feeds in a little bit as to why we released the illustrative gradings, rather than dropping it on them at the end of this season we wanted to give everyone the information so they could start to take control of their own destiny.”

With IMG reframing long-standing perceptions of Super League in an attempt to shake the malaise that has engulfed the sport in recent years, talk has lingered over whether the competition could be rebranded in the years ahead.

Dwyer insists nothing is off the table – but suggested that IMG’s resources would be better invested into other changes rather than a root-and-branch overhaul of the competition’s identity and title.

“There’s all sorts of factors that go into a decision like that,” he says.

“From our point of view, we’re in a position where we looked at the best things we could do with what was in front of us. We deemed it a refresh and I think it’s going to be a step-by-step process. We’ve started with a refresh with a new look and feel and there’s things we can do in the future.

“There’s so much to look at right now, you’ve seen the output over the last few months, but there’s so many other places we could look. Even a company as big as IMG, there’s a limit on how many things you can look at for any one period.

“Is changing the name of the competition the thing that’s going to bring in all the new fans we want? Or is getting that exposure, is that the way to do it? We think yes. That’s where the resource and the time has gone. Where can we get the most bang for what we’re trying to do – that’s why everything isn’t being done at once.”

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