Time to think about the future

With the Northern Rail Cup already underway and the Co-operative Championships due to kick off shortly, now seems as good a time as any to start thinking about the future of our game.  That’s exactly what the RFL have done with their Championship Strategy Review and we’re now at the stage when proposals are being put to clubs and a decision will be made in the next couple of weeks.

The public response to the proposals has been generally positive but I have a few concerns of my own about the implementation of them and feel further consultation is required with the games main stakeholder, the fans, to ensure the proposals are signed off for the right reasons and without detriment to our game.

The sentiment behind the proposals is undoubtedly a good one.  Strengthening clubs from within is something the game has long been crying out for and the RFL should be applauded for finally taking action.  If earlier action had been taken by the various football associations, perhaps the governance of that sport wouldn’t be under review by the DCMS, as it presently is.

As an organisation that represents supporters of both games, Supporters Direct is heavily involved in the review and it’s the reason we feel strongly that these proposals should be given proper consultation throughout rugby league.

Whilst supporters of the greatest game were asked for their opinions in late 2010, these new proposals are not going to be subject to a public consultation, which creates a lot of potential for conflict once the changes start to kick in.

For example, the proposal to alter the central funding system so Championship One clubs receive only 50% of the money that Championship clubs will receive.  In principle I can see where the RFL are going with this but they are proposing this funding structure without knowing the value of the new TV deal (due to be sorted in summer 2011).  Rightly or wrongly, there are several clubs in Championship One who rely on their central funding to survive so unless there is a big increase in the value of the TV deal, we could see even more clubs heading towards insolvency which is the polar opposite of what the RFL are trying to achieve.  Surely it would make more sense to postpone this decision until the impact on clubs is clear?

It appears that Championship clubs are going to benefit from an uneven salary cap based on an affordability exercise (although this is yet to be completely clarified by the RFL).  Whilst I am completely in favour of a salary cap throughout the game, this poses the question of exactly what the RFL are planning to class as “income” which can then be included in a clubs spend on players.  If directors’ loans/donations are going to be included, then what’s to stop clubs becoming more and more reliant on one or more directors in order to compete?  We’ve all seen what happens when the director runs out of money or decides to walk away so I hope, for the sake of the game, the RFL aren’t going to include this income.

On this front, the RFL could do worse than to take a good look at the German Bundesliga.  A competition run on strong financial foundations, sustainable spending and stakeholder involvement in clubs.  It’s no coincidence that no club has gone bankrupt or failed to complete a season in the last 40 years.

Finally, the dreaded mergers.  Or Club Amalgamation Package to use its official title.  Double funding until 2014 and a guaranteed place in the Championship is a huge carrot to dangle and it seems highly likely that it will lead to mergers.  Could this lead to a Championship skewed in favour of merged clubs, who with their double funding will undoubtedly have more to spend than their individual competitors.  The majority of sports fans do not think economically about their clubs, they think emotionally and it’s highly likely that this will be done without consultation with the fans or the wider community.  Questions could also be asked about who would actually benefit from these mergers: fans, communities or the directors?

Rugby league is a game built on strong communities but somewhere along the line these communities have lost their power to protect their own game and it’s vital that all fans step in and raise their concerns before it’s too late.

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