Rugby league is set to scrap automatic promotion and relegation to its top tier and elevate clubs on the basis of a new grading system under proposals unveiled by global sports media giant IMG as part of its 12-year partnership with the sport.
Clubs will be categorised in three bands based on a series of as-yet undetermined on and off-field criteria, with teams in the top ‘A’ band guaranteed to earn their place within the competition’s top tier.
Those given category ‘B’ status will fill the remaining places in a 12-team top-flight but face an annual re-assessment in which they must prove themselves worthy of promotion to the safeguarded ‘A’ standard or run the risk of being replaced.
The proposals are set to come into force at the end of the 2024 season, but only if a majority of the 37 professional clubs, who were briefed on the findings by IMG prior to a media presentation in Manchester, vote in favour at a meeting next month.
IMG confident in proposals for rugby league’s growth
Matt Dwyer, IMG’s vice president of sports management, said: “We have a unique opportunity to alter the growth trajectory of the sport and we believe the recommendations we have presented today will provide the foundation for that growth and attract new investment into the game.
“Our approach is focused on the product and leveraging the full expertise of IMG and the broader Endeavor network to create a high-quality entertainment offering for the fans.”
Dwyer was anxious to extricate the new plans from the previous licensing model, which was controversially introduced when Super League was launched in 1996, and whose much more rigid criteria effectively excluded a number of clubs from reaching the top-flight.
IMG maintains that because its new criteria will focus on a range of factors, it will still be possible for a club that comes up short in one particular aspect – for example, a lower ground capacity – to achieve ‘A’ licensing if it excels across other areas.
The IMG proposals also include abandoning unpopular loop fixtures and the annual Magic Weekend, ensuring a tighter domestic schedule that will create time for an international break and push the Challenge Cup final back to its more traditional May slot.
Expansion will be lower down the list of priorities, with international entrants capped at two – presumably the two current French clubs, Catalans and Toulouse – and teams from potential growth areas like London and beyond still being required to fit the criteria via robust long-term business plans.
IMG are also set to look into the international game, with the potential of a regular fixture for England against France.