One of the arguments put forward favour of franchising is that the best clubs are in Super League, and that those left outside can never hope to compete in the top flight. The high standard of Super League is such that clubs with top-flight ambitions such as Barrow, Halifax and Widnes are merely fooling themselves … obviously such small fry cannot be compared to the giants of Harlequins, Salford and Wakefield.
Close scrutiny reveals this to be an argument of impenetrable stupidity. Had, for instance, franchising been introduced at the start of Super League, Salford and Wakefield would have been among the clubs that missed out, alongside Huddersfield, Hull and Hull KR; meanwhile the “strongest clubs” that constituted Super League would have included Oldham, Workington Town and, yes, Halifax. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy: franchising is introduced at an arbitrary point in history, and those clubs fortunate enough to be successful at the time are declared to be the successful clubs forever. It seemingly matters not that they were habitually unsuccessful a few seasons ago, nor that the clubs outside were, until recently, competing at the top level. No, this is how things will always stay; they couldn’t possibly change.
The arguments surrounding Hull KR are a good example of this way of thinking. The Robins have been phenomenally successful, and have deserved every bit of success, but they have been cited as an example of why promotion and relegation doesn’t work. This is silliness: without promotion the Rovers would never have been in Super League in the first place. Had, for instance, the franchise system been implemented for the 2003 season and the decision made in 2002, Hull KR would never have had a look in. Widnes, on the other hand, in the chase for the Super League play-offs with an average crowd of around 6,000 could not have been excluded.
In that instance supporters of franchising would have cried that clubs like Widnes were an example of why franchising was the way forward, while small clubs like Hull KR could never hope to compete in the big league. Presumably we would have been treated to the hyper-expansionist argument that a single town or city could not support two Super League teams, an argument that has since been kicked into touch.
In 2002 Hull KR finished fourth in what was then the Northern Ford Premiership. Few would have predicted that in 2009 they would finish fourth in the engage Super League. In 2009 Widnes finished fourth in what is now the Co-operative Championship. To suggest that in 2016 they could feasibly finish fourth in Super League would appear to be laughable. Yet the only reason why that could never happen is because of the franchise system – a self-fulfilling prophecy indeed. Taking into account that Huddersfield and Wakefield also earned their place in Super League the old-fashioned way, then three of last year’s play-off teams would have been excluded from Super League had franchising been introduced at another arbitrary point in time. Of course, you could argue that Widnes went into administration, and are therefore unsuitable for Super League; well, I remember another club going into administration, London Broncos, which brings me onto the next argument.
We also hear the argument that expansion clubs are preferable to clubs in the game’s heartlands, and as one who does not wear a flat cap I can see the sense in that point of view. However, if we believe that non-heartland clubs are necessarily stronger and bring more to the game than heartland clubs we are sadly delusional. Take Harlequins this season, and their struggles on and off the pitch. The Quins have won only one game – are we to believe that neither Barrow, Halifax nor Widnes could match that form? In addition, and with apologies to the loyal and much-tested London rugby league fans, the attendance of 2,624 for Quins’ game against Huddersfield was laughable. Compare that to the crowds for the most recent home games of Halifax and Widnes: ‘Fax drew 3,071 and the Vikings 3,686. Neither of these are totally impressive, but they better our London franchise by a fair margin.
That doesn’t matter, you may argue: expansion clubs bring more sponsorship money and greater media coverage. Well, I don’t have any figures relating to sponsorship, but I’d be very surprised if the existence of the Crusaders allowed Wigan to wring any more money out of Mecca Bingo. I’d be stunned if any increase in sponsorship made up for the fact that Widnes could be relied upon to bring 1-2,000 fans to Wigan, while Quins, Crusaders and Catalans can’t muster seventy travelling supporters between the three of them. As for media coverage, that is demonstrably untrue: we’ve already seen how, despite covering the Super League launch in London, Harlequins’ opening game in London and the Crusaders’ first fixture at Wrexham the BBC in their wisdom still broadcast the Super League Show only in the northern regions.
For making this argument I’m quite sure I’m going to be viewed as a backwards-thinking, flat-cap wearing, whippet-racing, John Smiths-drinking northern clown. Yet this is an argument based on precedent and statistics, and I can see nowhere it is anything other than coldly logical. However, the hyper-expansionists and supporters of the franchise system live in their own fantastical world, a land of make-believe where every team in a new area brings in new players, new fans, new revenue streams and more media coverage. To them the franchise system will lead rugby league out of the smoky confines of northern pit villages, striding confidently into the sunlit uplands of national exposure.
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