Exclusive: The stark financial reality of the Challenge Cup revealed as future investigated

Aaron Bower
Leigh Leopards Challenge Cup Alamy

Leigh Leopards lifted the Challenge Cup in 2023

The Challenge Cup ramps up a notch this weekend when the 12 Super League clubs enter the competition, joining the four remaining Championship clubs in Round Six.

It is seen by many as the point where the road to Wembley really begins but in reality, that journey started all the way back in January for the club’s semi-professional, amateur and community clubs.

The notion of a deep cup run for a club outside of the elite is automatically viewed as a lucrative process however, Love Rugby League can reveal in detail just how little money there is to be made by playing in rugby league’s most famous competition. In fact, the reality is that some clubs have lost money staging games – as will once again be the case this weekend.

This is an in-depth investigation into just how the Challenge Cup is, in the words of one key stakeholder at a club, ‘flawed beyond belief’ when it comes to finances.

What is the prize money on offer?

Depending on how far you get in the cup, you receive a losing prize money fund for each round, according to documentation seen by Love Rugby League which is sent to clubs. That figure is as follows:

  • 1st round losers: £0
  • 2nd round losers: £500
  • 3rd round losers: £750
  • 4th round losers: £1,000
  • 5th round losers: £1,250
  • 6th round losers: £1,500
  • QF losers: £8,000
  • SF losers: £18,000
  • Runners-up: £35,000
  • Winners: £100,000

That means for the losing teams this weekend, they will collect a cheque for just £1,500. It is scant at best; even York Acorn, who went all the way to Round Five, picked up just £1,250. But that is where the problems only begin.

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‘You dread a home tie if it’s not against huge opposition’

A home tie for supporters is always the priority. But for many clubs, being drawn at home actually provides a financial hit – even as far into the competition as this weekend in Round Six, when the 12 Super League clubs join the four remaining Championship, League One and community clubs.

One Championship club who staged a home game in Round Five actually LOST money staging the game, when you factor in the price of opening their stadium, stewarding and other costs against money that came in through gate receipts. They estimated that loss ran into the thousands – which doesn’t sound much, but for clubs outside Super League, it is significant.

Another owner of a Championship club told Love Rugby League: “If you pull a big boy out at home it can put big numbers on the gate but you dread the prospect of a home tie if it’s not against huge opposition.”

Even last season, Love Rugby League was told of an all-Super League tie that lost money in Round Six. There are actually more advantages being drawn away in circumstances such as those, courtesy of the Rugby Football League’s ‘Cup Pool’.

A certain percentage of all gate receipts from every game goes to the RFL for their Cup Pool, which is essential to help fund the competition’s smooth running. The home club get around 15 per cent to cover their costs – or in this case, some of their costs – while the remaining 80 per cent is split equally between the two competing clubs. So in reality, your club stands to be in a better financial position if they are drawn away from home, rather than at home.

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Do the players get paid?

Barely, if at all. But the harsh reality is that getting some money – some players outside Super League get less than £100 per man if their team wins – is better than what other players receive.

Outside of Super League, the majority of player contracts do not include cup fees – in essence, the club negotiates a separate win/loss payment for each cup fixture, based on a number of factors.

“It wasn’t worth playing our tie from a financial perspective,” one chairman said. “Bigger clubs don’t promote an away trip, so crowds are usually small. The Challenge Cup for the majority of clubs is a loss leader.” In fact, many League 1 players don’t get paid for playing in the Challenge Cup – they only get paid if they win.

One Championship club, when asked how much their players received per round, simply said: “The alternative would be they get a share of the gate receipts, so they’re guaranteed some money. But if we lose money, they share the burden. They’d be shocked if they looked at the numbers and realised how impossible it is to actually make some money in this tournament.”

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What about at Wembley?

Thankfully, for the two clubs reaching the final, circumstances change. Both finalists are also entitled to a share of the gate receipts from the Wembley final, meaning the bigger the crowd, the bigger the financial boost each club gets.

From the net receipts, an initial ten per cent is deducted and put into the Cup Pool. As mentioned, that is a financial pot that helps stage the Challenge Cup and includes expenses like paying for host venues. Then, from the remaining 90 per cent, ten per cent will go to each of the competing clubs in the Challenge Cup final. The two clubs in the 1895 Cup final will also get a share.

The most important aspect of reaching the final when it comes to a financial boost is, of course, the prize money. It is certainly not life-changing; far from it, in fact. But while the early rounds see clubs staging games actually risking losing money, there is good prize money on offer for the finalists.

Both clubs are guaranteed at least £35,000 in prize money. The winners will net £100,000, a difference of £65,000. But it is not uncommon for the winning group of players to get a share of that prize money, meaning the figure left on the bottom line for clubs is nominal.

And what is arguably more important is that for everyone else involved, the financial benefits are close to negligible.

How can things change?

The reality is that the amount of funds available through prize money is not changing any time soon. The only real way to make significant money that will change your fortunes from the Challenge Cup is to land the likes of Wigan or St Helens at home if you’re a lower-league team – which is pure chance – or to make the final if you’re a Super League club.

But it hasn’t stopped some debating whether or not the cup format is in need of a refresh, particularly to help clubs outside of Super League. It was a point picked up by Leeds coach Rohan Smith this week.

Smith said: “Those opportunities can help grow the game or reward some of the clubs that have to work hard for a penny. To have a big club come to their town or home ground, that would be an exciting one. But it is what it is at the moment.”

Paul Wellens, the coach of St Helens, admitted from his own coaching perspective, he was happy playing fewer games in the competition: but admitted from a broader sense, there would be value in more prospect of ‘romantic’ ties.

“There’s one side of it that’s the rugby league romance side where if Super League sides came in a bit earlier, you’d have more of those fixtures against Championship teams and it’d be a bit like the FA Cup feel where you’ve got the minnows going up against the giants,” he told Love Rugby League last week.

“But I’m a huge believer in us trying to reduce the amount of games that the players are playing, and that lends to Super League teams coming in later in the competition.

“I understand the argument from both sides, and we seem to have tried every which way over a good number of years now by moving the Challenge Cup final date and different things like that.”

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