Lost its magic? Looking at some of the issues raised by fans about rugby league

Wigan fans trying to decide if its a try or no try

We often hear from those inside the game about the struggles they are facing commercially, particularly after the COVID pandemic.

But fans’ views don’t always seem to be taken in to account, and the lack of connection between these fans – who voice genuine feedback and concerns – and the clubs and powers that be could be seen as a major contributing factor to the challenges rugby league faces.

With that in mind, we take a look at some of the issues voiced by fans in recent weeks and give our take on them.

Lack of Sunday games

While it is true that the broadcast deal with Sky Sports dictates televised games are played on Thursday and Friday nights, we’ve seen a big shift in recent years to the majority of teams playing on Fridays – this is partly attributed to the “corporate sales” market and that it’s easier to sell hospitality on a Friday evening; but it’s also occurred for playing reasons too, with coaches often voicing their dismay at shorter turnarounds.

(Photo by Chris Lishman/MI News/NurPhoto)

What it’s meant though is that top flight rugby league has virtually disappeared from weekends. Sunday afternoons are a rarity, and there are fears the next generation of fans – who probably aren’t afforded the trip out late on a Thursday or Friday night – are being lost to the sport.

M62 nightmare on Thursday/Friday nights

Trials and tribulations with traffic on the M62 is often blamed for putting fans off going to games.

If you look at this in isolation, you could argue that it’s correct. But it doesn’t stop football fans at all levels making much further journeys on Tuesday or Wednesday nights every week.

But the big difference between football and rugby league fans – is that no matter where they might have to go on a Tuesday/Wednesday night, they’ll always have a Saturday game to look forward to as well. Missing a few midweek games matters little in football, as you can still go week in, week out on a Saturday. That’s not the case with rugby, and leads to fans becoming disenfranchised.

The schedule

Tied to the above is the chopping and changing of fixtures, in comparison to when they are first released. This worsens towards the back end of the season when games are moved at short notice for TV. It’s particularly problematic in the summer months, when trying to fit around events and holidays.

Again, compare to football – where virtually every team in the land plays every Saturday at 3pm unless they’re on TV.

Too many rule changes

Rugby league has many intricacies, particularly when compared to football. What doesn’t help is the constant tweaks to the rules, that make it virtually impossible for the casual fan to keep up with.

My learned colleague Rich dela Riviere estimated that there have been around 100 rule changes since the start of Super League – including rules that have been added and subsequently scrapped.

It adds even further pressure to match officials too, as interpretation of the rules by both them and fans causes confusion.

Playing the same teams too many times

Even with the perfect opportunity to do so, Super League clubs couldn’t resist the lure of the much-maligned loop fixtures in 2021. A shortened season seemed like the ideal way of cutting the number of games to 23 (11 home, 11 away and Magic Weekend), but no, it was still decided to retain a handful of loop fixtures.

For many years, fans have bemoaned the frequency of games between certain teams. Wigan and Warrington facing each other in the cup or at Magic Weekend is almost met with a laugh each time.

There’s been a lack of variation in Super League for many years – excluding Toronto’s brief stint, only 16 different teams have played in the competition in the past 16 years which is even less than the franchised 12-team British Basketball League has managed. Compare that to the movement and opportunity created in football and you can see why things are getting stale. In the Premier League, 41 different teams have played in the competition in the past 16 years.

Points percentage and COVID postponements

Slightly harsh to criticise the powers that be for this one, as COVID has clearly caused everyone significant issues. However, it has impacted on fans too, and their concerns should be noted.

Games have been postponed at very short notice in recent months, and that has led fans to lose confidence in being able to plan their lives – whether that be work shifts or travel – around getting to a game.

The points percentage system has also been criticised; though hopefully that will be consigned to the history books come the end of 2021 and we can return to a more traditional format for next season.

Ticket prices

Over the past decade, ticket prices have climbed by an alarming amount. Standard pricing has almost reached £25 for adults. This has to be causing a barrier of entry for potential new fans.

It is also compounded by the fact that throughout the year, rugby league is publicising cheap tickets for events at Wembley, St James’ Park and Old Trafford – while at the same time trying to get fans to pay £25 to stand on the terraces at Belle Vue.

That’s before we even get to the ludicrous price jumps if paying on the gate.

Cheaper tickets don’t always mean more fans, but there’s a clear lack of joined up thinking. Twenty’s plenty? I think so.

Sky Sports coverage

Some fans have complained that Sky Sports’ coverage of rugby league has stagnated. Ultimately, Sky pay their money and can do what they wish.

But BBC’s coverage feels a lot fresher and insightful than Sky, who ought to do more with Brian Carney and have at least made the effort this season to get some alternative pundits in.

The Betfred Super League Sky Sports Banner on display at the Halliwell Jones Stadium

However, it’s a shadow of the peak Eddie and Stevo years. Sky’s budget is of course eaten up by football and broadcasting rights and fees are diminishing due to the streaming culture, so hard to criticise too much – but it would be nice to see a change in approach.

Little interaction with community clubs

This will differ depending on area, but some fans have highlighted the lack of interaction and engagement from their local professional club with the community clubs that juniors play for. These are the clubs that professional clubs raid for their academy teams in year to come.

Might this be tied in to the ageing audience? Clubs instead choosing to spend time targeting corporate attendees on a Friday night, than getting junior teams along on a Sunday?

Dilution of the game on the field

Tough one this, as there is a line between entertainment and player welfare. Some would like the shoulder charge back, but from a player welfare perspective, it’s a no go.

Games are sometimes promoted with incidents and scuffles from previous games; which would now be punished with a card or a ban. It’s not the sport that many fell in love with.

The one-dimensional and structured nature of completing sets, focus on the collision and the non-entity of scrums has vastly changed how the game looks compared to 30 years ago. Size has become a priority over skill.

Some have argued that the intensity has gone from most games and there are constant calls for penalties.

Lack of match day entertainment

As we’ve seen with The Hundred recently, a lot was made about the fan experience and what was happening around the sport. Hull KR and Barrow have been among the clubs this year to try other things to add something to the match day experience.

But for many clubs, it’s still a case of paying your twenty-something pounds to get in, and then sit on a dusty plastic seat without much else to do. Very little pre-match or half-time entertainment going on, albeit that has become increasingly challenging due to COVID protocols.

It’s a far cry from Cougarmania.

Constantly changing the structure

The fans are getting tired of constant talk and speculation about the game’s future and the uncertainty over what the league will look like and whether there will be promotion and relegation.

For all the chopping and changing, rugby league hasn’t become any better for it.

Fan insight specialists ThinkEngagement recently distributed a survey targeted at rugby league fans. The results are currently being analysed and will be presented shortly.

What do you think of the issues presented? Are they of genuine concern or just simple moans? What issues do you have with the game that you would like to see rectified? Let us know in the comments below.

33 Comments

  1. A great criteque, but nothing ever changes. I’m not going near the Grand final this year fed up of watching low quality games. The ludites always win, the game will be confined to history within 5 years. Once the RU boys get to a decent standard of skill there will be no commercial reason for RL. The top clubs will be off to join union or gone bust. Even Salford who had a stadium built for them are moving out handing it over to union.

    • The game has become too soft. I understand player welfare but any tackle around the shoulder or chest is penalised as head high. No shoulder charges either. The new structure of 10 teams will just mean more games against the same teams. If the RL wanted to make the game more boring then they are going the right way

  2. Can’t fault a single word in this article but anybody can say what’s wrong. The key is putting it right, and for this that is in the remit of the governing body who frankly have and are still making a mess of it.

  3. Very pertinent points but the really crucial factor has not been addressed. For super league to prosper the aspirations of ‘Framing the future must be met’ meaning the game has to move away from the M62 corridor. As a Wakefield fan I advocate joining with Fev and Cas,The game must be seen in other conurbations otherwise, sad to say, it will continue to fade away. Hard for me to say but what is needed is another 11 Leeds Rhinos. Off now to beg for forgiveness.

    • If Cas fev and wakey joined to form one team, fans of each of the three clubs would stop going to whach that team because it would not be a team they could call their own.
      All three clubs have a great history in rugby league and must be left as they are

  4. I would have a 14 team Super League with two up and two down. I would have the top team as Champions with the play offs scrapped. The play off structure just sees the leading clubs doing what they have to do in preparation for the play offs. Top team Champions leaves no margin for error.

    In their place I suggest the top four could play the top four from Australia in a Super Cup prior to each season. Straight knockout over three weekends. It may mean some clubs traveling across the World for one game but that happens now with the World Club Challenge. The battle for the top four would be akin to the battle for Champions League places in Football. This would also give the game a significant annual event.

    I would also take Super League off Sky and get it on BBC. It exists in an almost alternate universe at present and Sky use it as filler. Look at the viewing figures for Sport on BBC and the extra interest it generates in other sports.For the Magic Weekend, Sky didn’t even mention it in their weekly “Sky Sports this week “ email and it’s coverage started five minutes before the first game. Initially there maybe a short fall in revenue but it would recover in time through increased exposure and what that brings.

    Merging clubs will not work. Existing fans are already fed up and wouldn’t follow a team say that merged the two Hull clubs.

    Below Super League there could be a 14 team Championship. Below that a League akin to Football’s National League could be established with promotion available. This would give clubs all across the country a chance of progress.

    Sunday has to be Matchday so that it becomes established as a Rugby League Day. The fixtures are far too fragmented and with one game here, one there it makes it easier for the media to ignore.

    We need to tidy the game up on the field. Make players play the ball, cut down on forward passes and bring back scrums and ensure the ball is fed down the middle.

    • Agree with much that Steve has said. In particular linking up with BBC is a must if we want a more Professional presentation of the sport. 14 Team in SL and Championship with automatic 2up/down. Not convinced in getting rid of Champ. Play-Off, in the hands of the BBC could be an excellent promotion for the game. Scrums return/ Play the ball/ Feed in the middle are a must in rule changes.

    • I agree completely. They need to disperse with stadium criteria too. Would encourage rugby grounds again. I’d like to see a streaming service too. I mean ffs how many sports are illegally streamed yet you cant find one rugby league game

  5. The talk is we will reduce the league to 10 teams, we must be the only sport in the world who thinks reducing the number of teams in a competition is growth. If SKY is truly behind this (and not greedy / skint chairmen) the I can only think they are trying to kill the game off. Time for the RFL to stand up and be counted, currently they are both toothless and voiceless.

  6. I have spoken to many supporters over many years and most agree that the team who finish top should be crowned champions . It is laughable that a team finishing 5 th. can be crowned champions.

  7. It seems that what is wrong with the game is “everything”. As Rugby League has been “dying” for the last 50+ years, but is still here, maybe we should be looking at what’s right and doing more of that, rather than constantly seeking to change things.
    I take on board the comments about pre-match and half time entertainment at the two Craven Parks, but cast your mind back to the pre-match fayre at Bradford Bulls of not so long ago. Probably there were a great many other factors involved in their fall down the ladder, but it seems their attempts at creating a more rounded experience than just 80 minutes of the finest game on the planet didn’t help them.
    Two points on other comments.
    Firstly, “merging” teams is a non-starter. For the majority of fans, if you “merge” two teams, you have got rid of two teams.
    Secondly – expanding outside the M62 corridor has to be done through natural growth. No more Paris San Germain or Toronto experiments.
    Everyone should be looking at Newcastle Thunder and finding out what they are doing to grow the game in the area.
    I remain to be convinced there is any need for major surgery and would like to see a period of stability. It’s very difficult to assess the merits or otherwise of any particular systems when they are not there long enough to assess.
    The people who shout loudest are the ones who are not happy with it as it is. Find out how many are not shouting because they are quite happy.

      • Well no, I hadn’t noticed actually. In the 80s when the two Hull teams were dominant, their average home attendances were 10,000+ for Hull and 8,000 plus for Rovers. Significantly below Wigan, Saints, Leeds and even Catalan, who cannot rely on a big away following to boost their attendances. That is of course pre Covid as it will take at least a full season post pandemic to assess where we are at now.

  8. It’s all about the money for the top teams in SL, so do what you want but, it will continue to decline. Of course the change of rule has made a negative decline in the game. Put them both together,and there is your answer.

  9. If BBC had the TV rights you would go back to 1 game on a Saturday { Eddie Waring Days} and only shown on the northern channels I live in North Wales and have to record The Super League Show on Granada.

    • Well said. Whilst the BBC undoubtedly have the best League commentator, they would not be in a position to match either the amount of coverage Sky offer, albeit skewed to the benefit of a few clubs (as Nicola Hallet quite rightly points out a little further down) or the money which comes to Rugby League from Sky, whatever we may think about that.

  10. Sick of Superleague messing with key fixtures, St James park is the only venue ideally suited to the magic wk end, leave it there!! Ditch Old Trafford for Grand Final, we are herded in and herded out, pubs are shut, can’t drink and watch the game, tucked away under the stadium like a leper if you want a drink, we are not football fans, don’t treat us like them. I don’t bother with challenge cup final anymore, Wembley is out on a limb, after watching the game every one disperses and your lucky if you see another supporter in the city. It’s a northern game keep it here where more people will travel watch it, Tottenham next year I believe, sounds like another back hander’s taken place. A field was a joke for magic wk end last time out, crammed, steep terraces for two days, not ideal for the fans. I’m sure however that messers Elstone & Rimmer we’re comfortable in their VIP suites.

  11. The only answer I can think of is for rugby league teams to affiliate with football clubs and to offer joint season tickets (or even give away the rugby league tickets for free to football fans!).

    The RFL should offer Thunder tickets for free or ‘at cost’ to Mike Ashley, in exchange for him giving the tickets away to his footie fans, Imagine the publicity and new crowds that would bring in, which in turn would create money and a buzz so he would benefit too

  12. I’m sick of sky only ever wanting to show St Helens or Wigan, not every rugby league fan supports those teams, I think if sky going to keep rugby league then they need to be more fair on who they put on week in week out, I’m tired of watching the same old clubs and no doubt others are too, only St Helens and wigans next generation of rugby league players are interested because no other team is ever truly promoted by sky, be more fair, there are ten other teams in superleague not only the two

  13. What bollocks. Grow or go back to when Hull and KR had those crowds ie part-time. The best young players will be earning relatively decent money playing UNION.

    • If that’s in response to my post on the 9th at 3:19pm, I have absolutely no idea what point you are trying to make. I suggesting that, with four or five of the current top teams averaging way above what the top teams of the 80s were averaging, then where does all the talk come from of the game not growing? Don’t see what part time or full time has to do with attendances, and the biggest threat to the best young players in Rugby League in Europe now comes from Australasia, not “that other game”.
      We pay too much attention to the vocal minority who want to change because there are things they don’t like, rather than the silent majority who do not say anything about change because on the whole they are quite satisfied with the game as it is, so have nothing to complain about. It’s not a Rugby League thing, it’s a society thing, but we seem hell bent on acting on the complaints of that minority when all that will happen is we change again and a different set of people don’t like it so they complain, ad infinitum. I’m not against change, but let’s make sure we know why we are changing and have a reasonable understanding that the chnage to new will be better than the old we are leaving behind.

  14. I see a surprising amount of people who want to scrap the playoffs. Playoffs are the true money-makers when it comes to broadcast. That’s why American sports are constantly expanding their playoff structures. (The NBA has 30 teams, of which 16 make the playoffs!) If Super League doesn’t want another downgrade for the next TV deal, the playoffs must stay.

  15. I like the idea of the Grand Final and the 60-70 thousand attendance event is defiantly good for rugby league but I hate the fact that league leaders are not champions. Addressing playing the same teams too many times, they could scrap league 1 having an 18 team Super League and an 18 team Championship allowing each team to play 1 home 1 away match per opponent removing the looping fixtures at the end of the season, without compromising the season’s length, so no teams plays an opponent more than twice (unless it is in the Challenge Cup). Also bringing a 3 up 3 down like in football would help keep the league fresh each season. And finally find a broadcasting partner that won’t cut your funding would also help.

  16. Im a new rugby league fan from midlands who has been watching for 3 years and went to watch first live game recently.

    To grow the game super league should be looking for teams in smaller cities and towns with no prominent rugby union or football sides. If they were only show in town there is no competition. Like Chester, Kidderminster, Kettering, Southport for example.

    I also think there needs to be more 3pm games. It pretty much rules out all families with young kids going at that time. The next generation of supporter.

    Most importantly maybe 1 game a week on terrestrial tv.

    Rugby League is a great game with not enough exposure.

  17. Like one of the other contributors I am going to have to beg forgiveness for this, but I am bored of watching one set of oversized physical freaks barge into another set of physical freaks. Lengthen pitches, match time, whatever it takes. For all the praise of Rob Burrow, you would not now advise anyone less than 5’10 to develop a serious interest in the game.

    If we’re going to look for expansion then you’ve got to take London and the French teams seriously and regard them as integral to Northern hemisphere RL. I agree the Champions who have won most points over the season should be the Champions. For this you have to bring back draws; they add tension and mathematical permutations. Keep the play offs, but it’s an end of season Masters tournament, not the be all and end all.

  18. After reading all the comments, how about this,
    Start by having 14 teams in SL and championship, obviously the Challenge cup and during the season bring back Lancashire v Yorkshire similar to State of origin in Oz. If possible devise a comp to include Cumbria as well. I,personally think the French sides should play in their own country and maybe have a european comp as is done in RU.
    As regards to promotion and relegation two up/two down. Bring back the scrums and stop this silly idea of choosing where to restart after an infringement in play.
    We all have different views but I guess the powers that be will ignore us all and continue to ruin the best game in the world.

  19. I would easily scrap the play offs, the winners of the Super League just play the winners of the NRL, also just add another trophy to the calendar , rather than just the challenge cup, and have 3 up and 3 down. More Sunday games would be great

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