The view from the front office: No split for Super League

Over the past five months in my columns for Love Rugby League I’ve discussed some issues that, as an educated outsider taking a close interest in the sport of Rugby League in the UK, seemed to be important and worth highlighting as areas that are important to discuss and address for the game to grow here.

I don’t think anyone was surprised that Dr Marwan Koukash has a strong view on a number of matters in the game. He is a new participant in rugby league in context and is a businessman of experience and a strong character. Phil Wilkinson wrote a good piece in Wigan Today that essentially pointed out that we should heed the pertinent points in the good doctor’s tirade and not allow his confrontational and direct approach to smother the fact that discussion is healthy and, if properly managed, could lead to improvements and better transparency for clubs and supporters.

The most important message I hope all clubs adhere to is to avoid repeating mistakes of others in the past. Talk of a breakaway competition or split is not language to be used lightly, and not language that should be used around the sport at all. The ‘Super League war’ in Australia took many years to heal and set the game back two decades financially and in market share and growth compared to its major competitor the AFL.

I thought I’d have a look at some of the issues raised by Marwan and others in the game and try and put some perspective into the debate as to why things may be as they are, what motivating factors may be driving all sides (clubs, owners, RFL) and hopefully cast some light on the issues for supporters in an objective and game-centric approach.

Firstly, Marwan is upset about the punishments his club have been handed down by the RFL recently. Not having spoken to Marwan about his specific grievances nor anyone at the RFL, and not having sat in the tribunal or seen the evidence tabled, I wouldn’t have a clue as to whether he is being unfairly treated or not. What I would say is that there should certainly be an independent body available to the game at all levels to hear appeals and mediate between any matters that the RFL and clubs or participants differ on. Any well-governed sport should be confident and transparent enough within its processes and procedures to encourage arms length measuring and auditing of its decision making process. It would not be expensive, in fact an honorary independent tribunal would be relatively simple to put together and would only need to sit to hear the rare cases that are elevated to the upper level of appeal.

Unfortunately Marwan in his enthusiasm may have watered down the strength of some of his individual gripes by lumping all his points and grievances in together.

The issue of Catalans getting unfair benefits I feel is off the mark. I’ve experienced rugby league in the NRL during the era that introduced expansion into Townsville, Canberra, Melbourne, Gold Coast and Auckland. All expansion clubs receive favourable terms on recruitment, salary cap and in other areas such as living away from home allowances. It is something that in my experience leaders of the other clubs accept and acknowledge as being for the betterment of the game long term. During our hardest financial times at Cronulla, Melbourne Storm were receiving $13 Million per season more than us, were found guilty of breaking the cap, and won premierships that had eluded our club for 40 years. I cannot however to this day argue that a strong, NRL supported Melbourne team in the competition was not for the betterment of the game and contributed significantly to the game’s growth and financials.

What owners and chairmen of Super League clubs will be considering when questioning whether Catalans (or Canada) should receive benefits and funding, is whether or not commercially it helps the game. If they wish to be selfish about it then they should consider whether it commercially benefits them and their club. It is my view that so long as broadcast money continues to be the major funder of sport, then those leaders of clubs in this country will most definitely understand the merit in having a strong Catalans and potentially other markets in the league. Every new market gains new broadcast licensing fees, gives each club more hits, clicks and eyes on their clubs and sponsored kits, making the exercise commercially very worthwhile.

There has been big talk about overthrowing the RFL board. From what I can gather the basis for this is that the ‘big four’ clubs in Super League are favoured and the leaders of the 12 Super League clubs are being encouraged to vote together to oust the RFL board. Now, I’m not sure whether there is bias, favouritism or conspiracy, I really wouldn’t have any idea. What I do know however is numbers and politics. All I would say is that if you are wanting to over throw the board and require all the clubs to get together and do so, maybe alienating the Big four, along with Catalans whilst asking them to vote your way does not make the best sense if one is attempting a coup based on majority numbers. Time will tell.

One thing I don’t agree on with Phil Wilkinson and others is that we need Rugby League to be run like rugby union, or darts, or UFC, or ice hockey, or whatever. I wrote about it earlier this year and times like these only validate my view more and more, we don’t need to be run like any other sport, we don’t need to compete with any other sport, our sport is great, our sport is the better product. We just need to work together to run our sport WELL.

Super League is the game in this country. It brings in the money, it is the elite competition and it deserves to be treated as such and deserves to have a strong voice. With that voice and control comes plenty of responsibility and no doubt owners and CEOs of Super League clubs must consider this when wishing for autonomy. The elite game as bread winner for the sport as a whole must account for the game’s development and grassroots. It is easy to throw criticism at the RFL for perceived inadequacies in the game across the country, however, someone has to do it, someone must find the money to fund the game at all levels. If Super League clubs ever split away and take with them broadcast money, who funds the rest of the game?

We love a drama and we love Marwan for speaking up and bringing issues to the table, but the solution, as it usually is, is to let the dust to settle and then look at the issues without emotion and without the anger and disappointment Marwan obviously feels about Salford’s punishments. On doing this, I think there is a very straightforward way to address things and move forward together :-

·      There exists a seven-year strategic plan that was released in 2015. Refer to it and if need be re-visit it right now with the 12 Super League club chairmen involved along with other key stakeholders including Championship clubs, universities etc.

·      If sign off and agreement was not gained on that game-wide strategic plan in 2015, get it now. Bring everyone to the table, get their opinions and issues aired, audit and edit the strategic plan to reflect the majority view, ask everyone to sign off on it and agree to working towards the plan, and then get cracking.

·      Look to add more detail in the game-wide strategic plan. Rather than a motherhood statement, include specific KPIs on a number of areas that matter to the game and ASSIST all clubs in achieving them with central funding and a central time scale on bringing the game up to those KPis. For example there should be a stadium policy for Super League and Championship Rugby League outlining base level standards of safety, capacity, facilities and fan engagement/service.

·      There should be a base standard of marketing and promotional skills and delivery for all Super League and Championship clubs to ensure the grants the RFL pay clubs are spent in areas that grow the game, paint the game in the correct light and brand guidelines, and adhere to a code centric customer service and HR policy.

·      There MUST be a base standard of staffing levels and skills at each club in education, welfare and coaching for youth and game development. I wrote about this previously. Wayne Bennett’s tenure as England coach must be used to centralise the philosophy, technique and coaching at all clubs into an English game ethos and style. All training and interaction with the game MUST be of elite standard. Pride in our game and performance at all times.

·      Salary cap reform can certainly be looked at, and I am an advocate of a points system. Regardless of what system, what levels the cap is set at, or if there is a cap at all, all clubs must have input and MUST sign off on it. Once a system or rules are in place then everyone plays under those rules.  No whinging. You signed off, you accept the rules and suffer the consequences if you break them.

·      Forget about feeling inferior to the NRL. This whole myth about the game in this country becoming a feeder competition for the NRL is only going to edge towards an unlikely reality if you keep staring at the NRL in fear as a threat. Every ounce of time or energy needlessly spent worrying about a competition on the other side of the world is time and energy that should be focused on streamlining and rationalising some processes and systems in the game here that will see more growth and benefit to the game than a decade of inferiority complexes can ever muster worrying about a competition that has no  need for, or more importantly absolutely no interest in the wholesale recruitment of young English Super League players to the Australian sands. I’m sorry if that offends anyone, but it’s the case. Anyone who tells you Super League risks losing huge numbers of amazing talent to the NRL due to the salary cap, RFL, etc has been placed under the spell of a player agent over a few beers and thinks they are talking to someone who knows Rugby league and what’s best for it. Newsflash, they only know about how to make a commission off the sport and usually are targeting the guy holding a beer next to them.

Your big threat is not the NRL, your big threat is 12-year olds leaning towards rugby union over rugby league. Get the house in order and you’ll keep them in league because no kid will choose confusion and boredom on a sporting pitch over fun and excitement.

Damian Irvine is the former chairman of NRL club Cronulla Shakrs and achieved the ‘impossible’ by saving them financially and leavinf the club as one of Sydney’s richest. Now in Football, the Australian was named Best Marketer in UK Football in 2014 while at Notts County and is the UK’s leading rugby league consultant to chairmen, commercial managers and CEOS. irvine currently works as the Head of Commercial Activities at Wycombe Wanderers can can be found on Twitter at @damianirvine


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