Rugby league overkill? Four games in one day at Wembley & multi-game obsession

James Gordon

A growing trend in rugby league in recent years has been cramming as many games as possible in to a single day at a single venue.

The announcement recently of the return to Wembley for the Challenge Cup final included the fact there will be four games on the day.

The Women’s Challenge Cup final will be played there too, as well as the 1895 Cup final and the Year 7 Champions Schools final.

It’s fantastic that the women’s game has progressed to such a level it has this recognition.

Its final has previously been played alongside the men’s semi-finals in a triple header, this year at Elland Road.

But in my opinion, anything more than two matches on a single day is too much – a Challenge Cup final double header with the Year 7 Champions Schools game would be more than enough.

Empty seats

I think even the most ardent rugby league fan would struggle to sit through four games of the sport back-to-back on a plastic seat.

Brian Noble agrees, writing about Summer Bash in his latest Forty-20 magazine column: “You’ve got to be something of an absolute league nut to sit through everything, unless you can get your hands on a couple of beers.”

It will probably be hard to prove, but the general feeling you get at Magic Weekend and Summer Bash is that a large proportion of fans stay for only their team’s game; and maybe a bit of the game before or after.

What that leaves is large pockets of empty seats at what are supposed to be rugby league’s showcase events.

It results in a poor visual for broadcasters and at times, can lead to a peculiar atmosphere within the stadium.

A double-header is about as much as it should go. A number of women’s matches are now being played before men’s, for example, with a gradually increasing crowd giving more exposure to the women’s game.

Perhaps the decision to stage multiple games is driven by fear.

There were murmurs at the Challenge Cup semi-final event that if both games hadn’t been played at the same venue on the same day, that broadcasting both may not have happened.

How much say the broadcasters have on when and where games are played will likely always stay behind closed doors.

But we were previously told that the timing of the Challenge Cup final was linked to the BBC’s schedules, only for it to be revealed after the most recent announcement that the BBC hadn’t been consulted over the switch to August 12.

The new date seems perilously close to a likely start date of the new football season.

Fear of poor crowds

There’s also fear about attendances.

Having more games on one day at one stadium means that there are more teams to sell tickets and therefore more fans to attract.

Leigh and Featherstone’s participation in the 1895 Cup final meant their fans contributed to an overall attendance of the day of 51,628.

The neutral attendance has apparently been decimated over the years, which could be for a variety of reasons.

The presence of Magic Weekend on the calendar will have seen some fans opt for that – and at least being able to watch their own team in some cases – rather than a Wembley trip.

MORE: Where and when should Magic Weekend be in 2023?

Cost is another. Timing. Maybe the new Wembley doesn’t have the same traditional pull as the old one. The lack of exposure of the Challenge Cup and rugby league in general to the casual sports fan, the type who may have opted to attend the cup final previously.

Having the 1895 Cup final at Wembley gives the non-Super League clubs at least some hope of playing there again – though if it is again marginalised to be played after the main event you’d have to question the wisdom in holding it there.

With Summer Bash looking increasingly pointless and hardly setting the rugby league world alight at Headingley, maybe it’s time to scrap that concept and instead play the 1895 Cup final at Blackpool and turn that in to the Championship’s main event of the summer.

After the debacle over asking Catalans for a bond to participate following the low attendance at the 2018 final, there are clearly concerns about rugby league’s own ability to sell tickets for even major events.

Batley coach Craig Lingard, also in August’s Forty-20 magazine, says marketing and advertising (or lack) “is the biggest issue within the sport at every level”.

That will be one thing that needs to be addressed by IMG – maybe the World Cup will show the way.