Rugby league needs to start listening to its fans

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

4 Comments

  1. Problem with the game is the people at the top don’t listen to the people at the bottom , plus there was certain things clubs where meant to do for supporters in the grounds , but I still visit grounds that are below that level like Castleford or wakefield and they have had years to sort it out and done nothing . The game is run by a certain number of clubs like St Helens Wigan Leeds and warrington with the financial clout to make decisions until that changes the games going nowhere fast .

  2. An independent review such as that called for by Lindsay Hoyle might be helpful but, looking at his comments, currently reads just like a wishlist with no substance. Of course we would all like to see more investors attracted to the game – what is the incentive for them to come in at the moment? People talk about going to other broadcasters than Sky to try and get a better tv deal – why would anyone pay any more than Sky are at the moment? I do believe that the constant rule changes put people off and also make life unnecessarily difficult for referees, who have to “interpret” rules that are constantly being tinkered with, leaving fans and players wondering where consistency is. The lack of a strong international game makes it difficult to attract fans outside the heartland. Look at football – how many people watched the Euros that don’t normally watch football? Some of these will have caught the bug, which just doesn’t happen to the same extent with a club game. The biggest worry, though, is the decline in participation numbers at junior and amateur level, which will be felt as a knock-on in a decline in fan numbers as time goes on. We have an aging fan base and a declining player base – where will that leave the game professionally in ten years time if these trends are not reversed? And, it is true that a growing number of fans seem to feel that the clubs and leadership do not listen to them. I could go on but don’t have the time at the moment. If anyone was to ask me for solutions I would say that concentrating on the decline in participation is the first key thing. Community development officers need to be expanded in number, so that they are not spread too thin to be effective. This could also be a good source of employment for ex-players. Adopt tag rugby as our answer to touch rugby, to attract more people to playing in a safer way. Keep up the focus on women’s RL, physical disability and learning disability variants of the game, so that our total participation numbers increase, which will be a halp in attracting more funding from bodies like Sport England. Bolster the amateur game instead of lumbering it with more expenses and red tape that help drive people away. Make current players brand ambassadors – say two from each top club – with media and social media training who are then shopped around to tv programs such as Soccer AM and so on – we need our players to be seen by people outside the game. Highlight reels for these players should be provided for TV companies so that if they have one of our players as a guest they can show how spectacular our game can be. And commit to these ideas don’t introduce something as a quick fix, hope it bears fruit in one or two years and then abandon it in a panic to move on to the next thing – real change takes time.

  3. Some great ideas, two really positive comments with more ideas, but we all know the reality, and it can be summed up in a few words, vested interests, the Establishment, media bias. That’s it. There will be no change, ii to keep certain interests happy the game shrank to three professional clubs, Leeds, Wigan, and St Helens, the rest went amateur, then to keep them happy they’d do it. The only way to save our spirt is to remove those running the clubs from makng the big decisions. But then they’d take their ball home with them. The sport is dying a slow death. It’s notable in the advertising for a Summer of Sport on the BBC and Sky, not a mention. The BBC, every single broadcast, “for those watching for the first time”, it’s a wonder they dont make Brian Noble, John Kear, JJB, et al, wear clogs, a flat hat, have a whippet on a string, a pint of mild in one hand, and a bakelite microphone in the other!

  4. The sport needs two things to thrive…go back to its storied traditions ( lose the mickey mouse team names like warriors,wolves,rhinos etc…that have alienated almost every long term supporter,go back to traditional jersey designs AND NEVER CHANGE THEM,bring back the original Championship trophy ( it is iconic,the Super League trophy means nothing ) and secondly introduce/promote/finance a LONDON team or teams.The lack of engagement in Britain`s largest market is unbelievable.

    The sport had a playoff to decide its Champions for about 80 years.Keep that,but limit it to a top four playoff.Lose and you are out.

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