RL Commercial chief explains key development IMG have thrown weight behind to boost rugby league’s profile

Ben Olawumi
Harry Newman, George Williams, Jack Welsby

Harry Newman (left), George Williams (middle) & Jack Welsby (right) have all been invited into different sporting worlds over the last 12 months as rugby league continues to try and grow its profile - Alamy

Rugby League Commercial Director Rhodri Jones insists rugby league must ‘propel its athletes’ into stardom, with a ‘collective responsibility’ to achieve that and not just focus on how clubs are perceived in this IMG era.

During the 2024 World Darts Championship, we saw both Warrington Wolves and St Helens take players down to the Alexandra Palace to show support for a couple of their famous fans in Luke Littler and Michael Smith respectively.

Since, Wolves chief Karl Fitzpatrick has continued that the club will continue to work closely with teenage sensation Littler as the new kid on the block continues his rise to the top.

Earlier in the year, Leeds Rhinos duo Harry Newman and Mikolaj Oledzki were invited down to London by IMG as guests at the UFC Fight Night held at the O2 Arena.

Jones acknowledges the benefit of those types of interactions and crossovers, and is pleased that we’ll continue to see more and more of them as the game itself looks to grow under the helpful eye of IMG.

RL Commercial chief explains key development IMG have thrown weight behind to boost rugby league’s profile

Speaking at a press event at the RFL‘s headquarters in Manchester this morning, Jones said: “In terms of the sport, why do we not want to talk about it? It’s a fantastic sport.

“I think 2024 will be fairly unprecedented, we’ve never had it so good in terms of profile, visibility and audience.

“It gives us an opportunity to show the sport off and show our clubs off. People still recognise the Wigan‘s of the 80’s and the 90’s, the Leeds of the 2000’s, but actually now we’ve got some new breeds of clubs coming through, your Hull KR‘s and your Leigh’s, for example.

“The third bit is that it’s about our athletes as well. Look at Luke ‘The Nuke’ (Littler) as an example.

“16 years old, but he promoted the darts beyond anywhere else it’s been. It was a unique story, it wasn’t your run of the mill darts player, it was something different. It shows you the power of athletes, and I say that in a loose term.

“A sportsperson with profile being successful, to give the likes of Jack Welsby and Harry Newman the platform to play on the BBC more regularly, that’s the key bit.

“The BBC show seven games in the Challenge Cup, and if there is a free-to-air-deal that’s believed to be the BBC, then that doubles or nearly triples the amount of content their output is delivering.

“Giving our players a real platform to go and show how good they are, I think as much we can bang the drum about Super League, you’re finding now – and it’s something we’ve learnt from these guys (IMG) – is that people are now following athletes over teams.

“We need to propel our athletes into those spheres, and I think that’s what free-to-air gives us.”

‘They’re not just rugby players… they’re a brand’

As well as the already-mentioned crossovers between the game’s stars and other events, we’ve also seenΒ Leigh Leopards create a link with UFC star Tom Aspinall.

The Heavyweight champion – from the neighbouring town of Atherton – was interviewed live on Sky SportsΒ ahead of one of their clashes with neighbours Wigan Warriors, while England captain George Williams spoke live on the BBC as a special guest at Wimbledon during the famous tennis tournament in summer.

Jones continued: “Some of the work you’ve talked about, we’ve done that historically, but with the added incentive now of working with the guys at IMG, that will continue.

“There’s more opportunities that come with working with a company with the reach that these guys (IMG) have got.

“In terms of our digital work, for the last 12 months that’s been focused on us in terms of RL Commercial but that’s now going to shift more towards clubs and putting a real focus in on them. The extension of that then is athletes.

“These guys (IMG) run a star creation programme, which a couple of the England players did during the World Cup. It extends that out to a number of other athletes to make them start thinking that they’re not just rugby players, they’re – in effect – a brand.

“How do you behave as that brand? What does your social media profile look like? How can we start creating bigger, more household names?

“Added support from these guys (IMG), if you throw in free-to-air, add in the fact that all games are going to be live, there’s more opportunity to see our best athletes playing.”

RL Commercial chief details ‘collective responsibility’ to help athletes reach star profile level

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A post shared by Jack Welsby (@jackwelsbyy)

While being on TV more and getting to attend events like the UFC or the darts will continue, the onus will be put on players to help boost their own profile via social media.

In the upcoming season, they will have almost immediate access to clips of themselves in action, with suggestions of what to post and what to say alongside them.

Clubs and Super League themselves will also have access to the clips, as Jones detailed a ‘collective responsibility’.

He added: “To explain the ScorePlay platform in layman’s terms, the feed comes in, it goes into ScorePlay, gets clipped and can be broadcast out.

“We can then have that go on the Super League website, our social media, it will go to club equivalents, and then we could also have your details as a player to go, ‘George Williams, there you go, there’s your clip from Friday night and here’s some of the messaging you might want to include. You do with it what you want.’ That’s the idea.

“You want to be a media darling or a media ghost, and it depends on how you’re feeling that week, doesn’t it? I think there’s an education bit. That’s not just us, but the guys at IMG.

“They’re dealing with world star athletes daily. We can lean on them to help us have those conversations with our players about how much you post and what kind of language you use.

“It’s part of the world, part of being an athlete ultimately. You’ve got to go with it a bit, it’s about how much you want to get involved.

“It’s in all of our interests to make this a success, we’re all in it together. Clubs have to buy into that as well, there’s a collective responsibility.”

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