Time to ditch rugby league’s family game image

Forgive me, because in rugby league terms I’m about to say the unthinkable.

It’s time to admit the ‘family game’ image just doesn’t cut it. We’re backing the wrong horse.

Over the last 20 years league’s authorities have undoubtedly claimed the wholesome, family fare territory of Britain’s sporting landscape. That much is evident just by looking at the make up of a typical Super League crowd.

It’s not hard to argue that to some extent it’s worked, with top-flight attendances heading north since the introduction of summer rugby.

But does it all come at a cost the game cannot afford?

Last year Super League’s clubs and the RFL combined to reject Betfair’s (cash) offer for the competition’s title sponsorship largely because of moral concerns. (That the RFL regularly send out press releases giving the latest odds available from William Hill seemed to pass under the irony radar of the sport’s decision makers.)

Would we do the same again if other booze or betting firms came to the table?

For so long now the family game tag has been taken as sacrosanct. We use it to give ourselves some kind of moral high ground over sports like football and to reinforce those chips we carry about how we’re ‘wrongly’ ignored.

But might it also actually turn off outsiders?

Are we at risk of being preachy, a bit holier-than-thou, even silly? And that’s before we even start on the implication that we’re somehow not a sport for grown ups.

At the moment it’s all a bit of a guilty secret, but you’ve only to look at how the crowd reacted at last year’s Magic Weekend when Wigan and Saints kicked seven lumps out of each other to realise that everyone loves the odd bit of biff.

To try to pretend that our sport isn’t built on aggression is akin to claiming that Nigel Wood is ready to give Usain Bolt a run for his money at Rio 2016 – utterly ridiculous.

It’s time to grow some cahoonas, as Nathan Brown would say, and start marketing the sport with more of an edge.

Appeal to adults. Admit there’s physicality, flared tempers and yes – gasp – even the occasional fight in a Super League match.

Then go out and openly sell the sport on that basis. You never know, we might even end up with a couple of sponsors – and couldn’t we do with those right now?

This isn’t a whinge or moan. I want rugby league to be as successful as possible – and then some. Plenty of knowledgeable marketing folk might laugh me out of town, but my hunch is we need a new direction. What do you think?

Good luck to Salford, and fingers crossed Marwan Koukash follows through his initial interest and agrees a deal to get involved with the club.

But after the dramas at Crusaders, Wakefield and Bradford, and with at least one other club rumoured to be under massive financial pressure, it’s now beyond all doubt that Super League’s numbers need to be cut.

The current licences expire at the end of 2014. Will someone be brave enough to step forward, take on the clubs and push through the necessary reforms? We can only hope.

Finally, a big thanks to James and the team at Love Rugby League for inviting me on board in 2013.

It feels like a make-or-break year for British rugby league. Let’s do our best to make sure it’s an absolute belter.

Neil will be writing regular columns and features on Love Rugby League in 2013. Follow him on Twitter @neilbarraclough.

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