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

Aaron Bower
Sky Sports rugby league cameras Alamy

Super League is broadcast live on Sky Sports - Alamy

Super League officially steps into a new era this week, with an unprecedented amount of coverage for the competition and arguably more buzz surrounding the sport than ever before. IMG’s plans to revolutionise the sport take a significant step forward with the first season under the gradings system, and with every Super League game available to be televised in 2024 and beyond, there are hopes rugby league can move up a level when it comes to mainstream media attention.

As advisors to Rugby League Commercial, IMG have driven the changes – and in the run-up to the new season, Love Rugby League has sat down with IMG’s VP of sports management, Matt Dwyer, for an exclusive series of interviews. This is the first of those, covering the upgrade in coverage, how that could translate to a big future for Super League and much more.

Super League has, it seems, been everywhere you look in recent weeks. There have been adverts on Spotify, signage all over major train stations and media appearances aplenty. That is before you get into the live coverage which will become the norm from this season. It feels unprecedented: and it perhaps feels like that because the competition has dragged its heels for so long when it comes to puncturing mainstream media attention.

For 12 months, the question has been asked of IMG by some critics: what are they actually doing? It felt as though there were little discernible, noticeable changes but in reality, the hard work that was done away from the spotlight in 2023 is now being seen before our eyes. There has arguably never been as positive a buzz ahead of Thursday night’s big kick-off and as Dwyer himself correctly puts it to Love Rugby League: “If you’re a rugby league fan, it’s never been this good.”

Of course, that means that Super League can now tell its stories much more than previously. That then rolls the responsibility back around onto IMG to deliver on that heightened attention to capture new supporters. That, in turn, leads to more income through a variety of streams including commercial and ticketing. But this is still just the start in Dwyer’s eyes.

“The amount of coverage the league is going to get this year broadcast-wise, including obviously the new deals with Sky and the BBC and all the implications of every game being broadcast.. if you’re a rugby league fan then it’s never been this good in this country,” he tells Love Rugby League.

“If you’re a casual fan who may have found it difficult to consume our product in the past, it’s right in your face now. Our ability to tell our story and show our sport is really positive, but I think from IMG’s point of view as well as RLC, there’s a reason this was a 12-year deal. That was because we have a lot of steps to go in this process.

“If there was a magic wand, we’d have done a one-year deal, fixed everything and Rhodri (Jones) would be off running RLC and I’d be doing something else. But it doesn’t work like that when you’re trying to grow a sport. None of us are unaware of where the sport was and what we’re trying to do to grow, and that takes time.

“From my point of view, it’s hard to articulate that to everyone. The clubs understand what’s going on, but it’s about trying to get that information out there. There’s a lot being done in the background but there’s a lot more to do and it’s going to take that full period of time to get to the level we want to be at as a sport.”

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Paul Wellens, BBC Sport
There will be more Super League on TV than ever before in 2024 – Alamy

“The amount of exposure we’re going to get this year, it’s unprecedented”

So how do they do that? A cornerstone of the plan, for this year at least, revolves around another groundbreaking development for Super League: the launch of SuperLeague+, the competition’s new in-house subscription channel. There will be over 100 live Super League games, full match replays, highlights and other on-demand content each season shown on SL+, and Dwyer identifies the launch as a key moment in IMG’s long-term plan when it comes to hooking new fans both here and abroad.

“It allows a different way for a different customer or fan to consume our product,” Dwyer explains. “That’s really unique and really different. Where people have got a bit confused is to how this fits in: this is complimentary to the Sky broadcast deal. It’s an offering for people who may not be Sky subscribers, people who want to consume the archive content that’s going on there – which we have big expectations for.

“There’s new programmes we can put on there but really important to us is that it’s a market for our international fans too. Historically, depending on where they live, they may have not been able to watch any Super League games.

“I use Watch NRL here in the UK and being able to have an offering that goes the other way is really exciting. That’s where we’re focussing our attention now because we’re a week away from the season starting, but capitalising off the back of the amount of exposure we’re going to get this year, it’s unprecedented.

“It’s our job to get more people to look at our sport as a result. There may be people who are sitting on the sidelines about rugby league thinking ‘yeah, I like this sport’, and we want to capture them. It’s a great game but we need to let people experience it.”

Dwyer is hesitant to reveal exact sign-up numbers since the launch, but insists IMG are happy with the early buy-in ahead of monthly and match passes being launched alongside the existing annual subscriptions. As well as providing supporters with the chance to indulge in more Super League than ever before, Dwyer is also hopeful that the platform can provide significant financial income for the league and, in turn, the sport.

“It’s such early days for the product,” he admits. “We’re putting it out there and we’re all learning about where the demand is coming from, whether it’s an international priority or a domestic one – it’s a learning process. But if you can create a product that has a significant user base then that has huge commercial opportunity to go with it, as well as membership opportunities.

“We’re very much seeing this as a new revenue stream for the league which helps us grow and gives us money to invest in other areas. We’ve been happy with the early buy-in, I obviously can’t give you a number but it’s been about getting the correct message out there.

“That’s taken a bit of time to filter through – who is this for and what’s on it. It’s unique this season because Sky show the first 15 rounds on their normal Sky channels, that’s a one-off and it’s complicated the story a little bit. The fact there’s an offering where you can have four games a round live and two games delayed, it’s fantastic. That will appeal to a certain type of fan both here in the UK and internationally.”

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Jack Welsby celebrates the win over Leeds Rhinos. Photo by Steve Flynn/News Images.
Making superstars of Super League’s biggest players is high on IMG’s agenda. Photo by Steve Flynn/News Images.

“How do we get people to understand who these players are?”

One area many believe IMG can make a discernible difference is in something rugby league has lacked for years: the ability to market its genuine superstars. There is still the school of thought that if you asked someone in London to name a rugby league player, they would say Ellery Hanley.

Changing that, and putting names like Jai Field and Jack Welsby into the mainstream, could be game-changing for Super League, Dwyer believes – and work has already begun on that process. “There’s some good stats around football that the younger generation, I think a third of them follow three teams or more in football,” he reveals.

“This concept you only grow up a Chelsea fan doesn’t exist with this generation now. They’re following the players they want to follow. It’s not a unique challenge to rugby league, every sport we work with revolves around needing more stars in the game. Look at Daniel Ricciardo; he’s not the best Formula 1 driver but he’s really interesting.

“People want to follow this guy, so there is a middle ground between needing stars but needing characters. We definitely have both, and that’s on us to get them out there. We need to help them if they have a character, but help some of the guys who it’s not as natural for and give them things that are in their comfort zone to allow them to flourish.

“That’s a very big part of the plan we’re working on – how do we get people to understand who these players are and think, for example, ‘Jack Welsby, he’s got an interesting story and he’s an interesting character, how do I see him on the field?’. They then start following St Helens and we go from there.”

As well as SuperLeague+ and the new and improved deal with Sky Sports, there is also a free-to-air arrangement with the BBC which offers plenty of hope for new exposure. Long-term, Dwyer insists the benefits for rugby league are potentially immeasurable – and he insists the onus is on IMG to capitalise on this extra attention.

“Everyone is trying to get exposure so the fact we’ve got all our games broadcast and got time on the BBC is an enormous win,” Dwyer says. “Every sport is trying to get on the BBC, I promise you – and we’ve done it. It’s prime free-to-air exposure. They all want it, and rugby league has it.

“It will take a while for the exposure to translate into more fans, which translates into growing the sport, but that’s the basis of what we want to do. The scale of exposure we have now versus last – or any – season is unprecedented for this sport. The amount of other sports that would love to have the exposure we’re having moving forward is.. well, all of them, except football.

“Our way of thinking has been about how we can get more people to casually see our sport. Whether they’re flicking through their Sky channels, or they’re listening to talkSPORT as they’re driving or they don’t have Sky, but they can now see the BBC games.

“Then off the back of that, they realise they’re into it and they try Super League+. The game sells itself, it’s just getting people to watch for the first or second time and that drives that fandom. That’s on us; we need to then keep people in the eco-system and make them experience more of it.”

In part two, Dwyer discusses the new gradings system, how it will work with the clubs throughout 2024 and the prospect of Super League expansion in the coming years.

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