Rugby league needs to start listening to its fans

Kevin Rye

Rugby League fans find their seats inside Leigh Sports Village, home of Leigh Centurions

Listening to Dave Woods’ RL podcast on Five Live with Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle MP there are calls for an independent review of Rugby League – presumably at least similar to that being carried out by the government’s current Fan Led Review of football, or at least the many reviews of the game that have happened over the years. 

It seems to stem from the sport and those who oversee it appearing to be in a sense of crisis. And it’s just as a result of Covid.

For years, there has been a constant slew of rebranding exercises, new initiatives on how the sport is played and who plays it, and changes in who runs which part of the game. From where I sit, it looks like a sport that’s got almost no confidence in itself. 

To an outsider like me at least, this near complete collapse of confidence, and an absence in the vacuum created of the right kind of leadership, quick fixes often become the preferred solution because at least it looks like you’re doing something. Although leadership is a tough place sometimes, when in a hole stop digging. 

What I’ve concluded is that Rugby League needs to go back to its roots. It needs to stop obsessing with marketing itself as a new, exciting, shiny sport, and realise that it has qualities that other sports would die for.

It has fans who are loyal and passionate, and it has clubs that in most cases, are rooted, historical institutions.

It has an actual sport itself that is like warriors in battle, as Warrington’s CEO Karl Fitzpatrick talked about so passionately on the Fan Engagement Pod

The first thing I would be doing, were I in charge of a club, would be to start asking fans what they actually think about their clubs: the way they’re treated by them, what their priorities are, why they love the sport, and integrating that into what I do every day.

Fans are like a vessel, filled with memories of the club, the sport, and their experiences of it. If you give them the chance, they can paint a picture that no marketing agency charged with a rebrand could ever do.

They can express what it feels like to win a Challenge Cup more vividly than any advertising executive could ever do.

They can share their experiences of winning league titles, Grand Finals, of being at a particularly special match, or seeing a hero of theirs. They hold the stories. They are, in many senses, the club in human form.

Of course, if I was running a club and I really wanted to listen to the fans, they might also tell me things I don’t like: They might tell me that they don’t want the badge constantly changing, that they like the fact that the club has the name it does, or even that the bewildering changes in the rules make it hard for them to understand what’s going on – and what will that do to newcomers?

They might sound a tad too conservative for me at times, but I’d take a view that it’s part of the territory when you’ve got fans that are steeped in loyalty, and don’t just wander off to another club when the mood takes them.

It’s scary, being told things you don’t want to hear. But ultimately, giving fans a way of feeding into the conversation about their sport, their clubs, also reduces a lot of tension. You can’t please all of the people, but you can make them happier by listening.

Rugby League isn’t football, but the differences are generally of scale: clubs don’t vary that much, and neither do fans and their loyalties. Not really.

I’m asking is whether giving them a chance to speak and be heard might be worth trying, given that it’s proven to work in football. In many other areas of life, we listen to ‘stakeholders’, and the fans of Rugby League clubs are undoubtedly, one of those. The most important in my book.

That’s why Think Fan Engagement has issued a survey of Rugby League fans. We want to know about what they – you – think about ‘rebranding’, how they are and aren’t consulted on the big issues at their clubs and in their sport.

If you’re a fan of one of the English & Welsh clubs in the top three divisions of Rugby League, we’d love to hear from you.

Click here to access the survey

Kevin Rye is founder and director of Think Fan Engagement