Top heavy rugby league needs to get real

Robert Elstone’s race as Super League’s Executive Chairman is run, and it remains to be seen who his successor will be, if there indeed is one at all.

His tenure has been disappointing and his legacy will likely be the Toronto debacle and the infamous Papa John’s pizza deal.

In many ways, that may seem harsh on a man who has had his hands tied from day one.

“New beginnings”

The theory of Super League splitting from the RFL to control its own interests was a fair one; the trouble is that it continues to serve the interests of its current clubs (whoever they happen to be), rather than the competition – ergo the elite level of the sport in the Northern Hemisphere.

Elstone was being paid an amount rugby league can hardly afford to effectively collect the views and votes of the 12 club chairman fortunate enough to be around the controlling table at this time. Oh, and as a bonus, he got a vote of his own.

Whether he was sold the dream up front that things would be different, only he will know.

The result is a far cry from the “new beginnings” promised us following the extraordinary coup that saw him unveiled at a press conference alongside a select few Super League club chiefs.

The wasted £750,000 on the equity deal that was voted out by clubs beggars belief. Elstone, had the proper power been afforded him, may have got that through and made a success of it. We will never know.

But it’s outright delusional that rugby league has put itself in a position where it has surrendered that amount of money for absolutely nothing; perhaps it was that outcome which left Elstone with no vision with which to continue.

It will serve as another example of twisted governance, seemingly blinded by the smoke caused by the burning fire of the sport beneath it.

In the wider context of the game

Rugby league needs a reality check. It cannot compete, or put itself alongside, the elite and global sports it either professes to be like or aspire to be.

The comparisons to rugby union are startling. There are more rugby union participants in Poland (60,884) than there are rugby league in the whole of Europe (58,252).

Previously, I stated that rugby league’s obsession with expansion was disingenuous, and it was merely about what further monies it could extract for the benefit of the few, rather than having a real desire to grow the game.

We have a top heavy sport. A Super League competition that has escalated its costs while reducing its sponsorship revenue; the RFL which is forever a sitting duck when it comes to the blame game (both domestically and abroad); and now the movements to organise the sport worldwide to mirror that in other sports.

On the face of it, the rebranded International Rugby League – with the Rugby League European Federation and the Asia Pacific Federation (and potential others) sat beneath it, makes sense.

But when 75% of all participants in the Northern Hemisphere are in England it sounds like overkill; especially when you consider that the NRL and ARLC sits somewhat on the periphery.

While we debate the ‘will that, won’t that’ hypothesis of re-structuring international federations and putting big city expansion sides in to the UK league system, the strategy to grow the game worldwide remains unclear.

Toronto Wolfpack’s progress up the leagues, and five-figure crowds, were consigned to the history books

In the 16 years I have been running this website, the brilliant Phil Caplan has continually furnished us with stories from across Europe of international matches, new club sides, leagues getting off the ground and other development.

The question is – why do these never get anywhere and how does rugby league change that?

Italy beat England in 2013 ahead of a memorable World Cup campaign, yet six years later, they can’t even be bothered to return their participation numbers to be included in the RLEF’s annual report.

There are more than 8,000 participants in France, and only a global pandemic has brought its semi-professional league to the attention of the wider rugby league world.

How do some of the more encouraging development countries, such as Serbia and Ukraine, grow significantly enough to create their own semi-professional competitions – as well as sending players to try their hand in England and France, which has been done on a handful of occasions already.

Like it or not, the state of rugby league in general is so closely linked to Super League due to that being by far the most prominent competition in the Northern Hemisphere, with the biggest clubs, the best players and the most money.

Rugby league cannot grow without Super League. Super League cannot grow without rugby league.

What next?

About James Gordon 7122 Articles
Love Rugby League editor. Founded the website back in 2005. Worked with a range of clubs and sponsors during that time. Also commentates for BBC.


  1. A typically disjointed, unconstructive article about Rugby Leagues woes.
    Sometimes I wonder about people in the game, and yes LRL journalists are part of those “in the game”. A look at the lack of genuine news is symptomatic of the amateur approach of those in the game. Too much opinion bandied about as news. Lazy journalism. Criticism of expansion and criticism of not growing the game… Can you have it both ways?
    Parachialism is not a bad thing. Look at Aussie Rules. You journalists are the voice of the game and do nothing to provide interest in it, pontificating to the diminishing audience and patting yourself in the back for it. And, at the same time, scoring points by subtle criticism of each other.
    It’s true though that RL below SL is basically amateur, run on whist drives and chook raffles. Yet, when a club comes along to drag RL into the 21st century, you lot find ways to denounce it.

    • It’s an opinion piece, Ged. It’s not being bandied about as news. LRL covers as much news as is possible. There have only been c50 rugby league matches in the UK for 12 months. There is very little going on. The criticism wasn’t of expansion, but of the way it’s handled. If it costs $20m over three years to drag RL into the 21st century, then it’s clearly not going to last very long anyway.

  2. “Rugby league cannot grow without Super League. Super League cannot grow without rugby league”
    No doubt you remember one of the main justifications for setting up the Suoer League, whilst *rationalising* the domestic competitions was to compete more effectively internationally with Australia/NZ. Remind me how that’s gone?

  3. The sad fact is that whichever form(s) of governance comes next, there is barely enough money in RL to survive, let alone expand.

    BT Sport and terrestrial TV stations don’t seem interested, which leaves Sky propping up the entire game on however much money they feel obliged to give us. You can’t blame Rob Elston for that, it was an impossible job.

    RL now needs to cut its governance cloth accordingly, and focus everything it has on the very survival of the heartland game.

    From there, hopefully support will grow in Newcastle, York, London, Bradford, etc, and in a few years time we could be in a position to move to a 14 or 16 team superleague (but without relegation for the first 2 years- harsh for those left out, but probably needed)

    • I could not have said it better myself! This game we seem to forget why it began and what it stands for!
      Why the divide happened and was necessary

      Sometimes some things are best left as is, the whole monetary and popularity gains in this sport over the last few years is bringing it to its knees!
      Keep it local, keep it simple, and stop the greed and desperation i feel is happening, to try to expand something that is perfect as it is

  4. “The wasted £750,000 on the equity deal”

    Again, this was not wasted. This was the search fee from the investment bank that acted as broker. Leave finance to proper sports.

    • Wasted in real terms to rugby league though. Who decided that spending £750k on someone to search for some potential investors was a good idea?! Especially given the fragility of those who vote whether to accept the eventual deal on the table or not!

      • …and that is why the game is OIA*.

        Zero plan from anyone. Why are they pumping so much into the World Cup in terms of energy and resource? Would it not be better trying to sort out the two biggest problems in this country. Diminishing participation at club level and improving the quality of its key product, Super League.

        *OIA = on its arse.

  5. I’ve been saying for years we should follow the RU model. SL clubs have one team. How the hell can you get development and interest from up and coming stars. Even teams in the lower RU leagues have 4 or 5 teams. But those teams are self financed by the players and committees until they make it to the first team squad. So instead of 25 players you have well over 100. All with hundreds of relatives. So by simply having three teams each we treble the playing numbers and so interest in RL. Also other than a slack handful of RU clubs all rely heavily on handouts from the RFU who are loaded, unlike the RFL. Why? Easy that one, it’s the gold mine called Twickenham.
    We need a national stadium, not a new build as we couldn’t afford it, but somewhere we can call home. Then finally start supporting the lower leagues. Due to shitting on them they have stopped supporting the Challenge Cup Final and Internationals. Just check out the crowds since the inception of SL. We are imploding and blaming everyone but ourselves.

  6. I have dealt private equity on a number of occasions over the last couple of years the most recent being Feb 20 when I managed to raise £40m for a deal which didn’t proceed.
    The finders fee was mouth watering but only payable on completion of the deal.
    I’m astonished that the £750k is payable when the supposed deal didn’t go ahead

  7. First: Very good piece James.
    The french competion made it more available through their streams this year, which raised their profile. As a German, I dissapointent about the content my federations puts out, but that is because of financial restrictions. I support than, traveled to the Griffin Cup last year and try to help than otherwise, but after years of following the sport, I cringe at the terms “english buisness man” and “starting a club”. In my opinion the place of the RFL on the RLEF board should be given to BARLA, because the level of skill is closer and they are more interested in organizing games.

    • True about France of course, but I still think even prior to streams, rugby league didn’t give it enough attention or even acknowledgement. We should shout from the rooftops about it, as it’s another semi-pro league that exists.

  8. May I ask where you got the Poland RU and Europe RL participation figures from?
    Please provide your source as I am certain your figures are way off.

  9. I agree. Reality check needed. RL is not as big as people want you to believe. Poorly run clubs and overpaid 3rd rate players. The game was more competitive and entertaining in the 80’s despite the £millions in the game now. Expansion is a distraction. #backtobasics

  10. Rugby League is on life support and if it wasn’t for chairman and CEO’s being passionate about the sport they throw their money behind to entertain the fan base, this sport would be all amateur. The sport should be trying to get an advantage against Rugby Yawnion, in sponsorship deals that undercut the Yawnion Brand, but most sponsorship comes from local proud companies. Maybe we should be consulting with NRL to get the worldwide brands involved in Northern Hemisphere as they do in the Southern.
    Rugby League died to me when they followed blindly in a stunt of following BLM and it’s Marxist agenda without research, the sort of virtue signalling we don’t need from a mostly Caucasian run committee. I am cancelling Sky Sports for their lack of dignity to fans and forcing agendas on to people that live in diverse communities that live in harmony. I was hoping to take more time in the terraces but being told that because I am of a certain skin colour, that I must be racist by nature is a bitter pill to swallow.
    Elstone and his cronies should have been looking at spreading teams in the Heartlands of Cumbria, with the prospect of adding Scottish teams in to a semi professional Scottish league to bolster GB&I recruits, rather than splashing money on a transatlantic team that fans warned wouldn’t work. It was painful to watch this story evolve and the RFL/SL made a mockery off.
    We should have had a national teams event with the England Knights playing against Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and France in the competition for England/GB&I to play the Southern hemisphere sides and if in the UK double head the games.
    I hope the incoming replacement starts to kick out the deadwood at the top and bring in truly passionate RL fans to take the game forward. These jobs should not be pension pots and should be fluid enough to stop the slackers from sitting in the job too long without fruits to bear.

    • RFL/SL needs to think outside the box. Look at what RU has done and tread a similar path. Union/Sevens does tournaments in Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, paid for buy these people. It has big financial and logistics sponsorships. RL can’t get this stuff at home then go abroad. RL wanted to hold a World Cup in Dubai but the UAE banned it as a sport due to RU lobbying. Then approach Qatar to do a World Cup. Approach Turkish Airlines for a Super League sponsorship, they’ve sponsored Basketball’s EuroLeague for a decade but they currently have no sports clubs or leagues in the UK they’re sponsoring. That is year-round guaranteed TV time for them in the British market. They want it, someone just needs to approach them and point it out.

      Put energy in growing the sport in the Balkans and Turkey with a professional league as an end-goal intended for Eastern Europe and Lebanon modeled after the EuroLeague (which caters to Euro and Israel basketball). RU is putting energy growing the sport in that part of the world. Georgia is crazy about RU, but their neighbors have already shown propensity towards RL, so then nurture it. IRL doesn’t have money to nurture it, then get businessmen in Turkey, Serbia, Greece and Albania itself to nurture it. They want more sports to follow, and Rugby League has fewer “big players” nations-wise, so the odds of greater visibility and success are broader for its national participants than bigger sports that are too crowded with established nations.

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