Nothing has struck more fear into my heart recently than the way Rugby League has been talking about expansion. The sheer lack of foresight, disrespect for the game’s fans and chronic failure to understand the sport’s previous failures being displayed is mind-boggling.
We’ve had John Kear adding random clubs into Super League like a crazed child in a sweet shop, Kyle Amor and Brian Noble sat on national TV failing to defend one of the game’s grandest old teams and RFL executives ‘open’ to the idea of teams moving cities.
Make no mistake. This is frightening. And, whoever you support, you should be afraid.
The next 1,500 words or so will aim to explain what has worked, what has failed and what we need to do, globally, to expand the game. I will not be creating fanciful new franchises by chucking darts into a map. There’s been far too much of that recently.
This is my opinion, backed up with fact. But hopefully, you’ll find it agreeable.
Why Wakefield and Bradford Need to Survive
Being two of the game’s oldest and most glorious names, their continued existence, and existence at strength, is paramount.
Bradford, at one point, were able to draw crowds of over 17,000 to Odsal. In a league were only six teams can average over 10,000 fans a game we need them back. Wakey have limped along now for basically the last 20 years, but, with a new ground, implemented properly, their crowds can improve. They play in the biggest UK city never to have had a league football club.
The loss of both clubs, would mean the loss of the next Burgess, the next Johnstone. Before looking to court Jacksonville, Montreal or Perth, Red Hall needs to look 10 miles from its own doorstep.
What do we make of Toronto?
Toronto approached the RFL. Not the other way round. This isn’t the RFL sticking a flag in Gateshead or Paris, or wherever, and then watching the franchise crumble in under ten minutes flat. Toronto are a very different beast.
In terms of marketing they’ve nailed it. Still, it’ll be interesting to see how they fare come their first home game against Oxford on May 6. Rugby-wise they’ll dominate, but crowd numbers will be interesting to see. Either way, they are working their way up the leagues and hopefully building their club into a position of strength as a result. This is easily the right way to do it. It will legitimise the club in the eyes of many.
The biggest issue that Toronto raise is one little talked about: that of player recruitment.
The collegiate system employed by most American sports does leave 95% of its athletes out in the cold following graduation. Many American Football players find their way to the CFL (A similar sport but also quite different to NFL. Very much like the Union/League split). They do represent a talent pool to tap. Not that many have been tapped so far.
Currently in Canada there are five teams in the west and a further four in Ontario, with a few representative state teams thrown in. It’s a start, especially as they all feed into one club, potentially.
When you consider that Super League was reduced from 14 to 12 teams based partially on the lack of player strength, it’s critical that Wakefield aren’t therefore replaced by a team in Montreal just fielding Wakefield’s old players.
Ultimately, Toronto need to be fielding 60-70% North American players before I’ll consider them anything other than a big black cuckoo sat in Bradford, Hull KR or Wakefield’s nest.
Oxford, Hemel and the like
Player recruitment is such an issue that many southern teams in League 1 are bussing in northerners en masse to fill their ranks. Hemel have even moved their training base from Hemel itself to Dewsbury.
Take a look at the League 1 table from 2016:
1 Toulouse Olympique
2 Rochdale Hornets
3 York City Knights
5 Barrow Raiders
6 Keighley Cougars
8 London Skolars
9 Newcastle Thunder
10 North Wales Crusaders
11 Coventry Bears
12 Gloucestershire All Golds
13 South Wales Scorpions
14 Oxford Rugby League
15 Hemel Stags
Every expansion club finished below every traditional one. It’s essentially two separate leagues running in parallel. Many of these clubs, like South Wales, or Oxford are struggling to hold down stadiums, both having moved (Downsized) at least once.
In this regard, at least, Toronto are a breath of fresh air.
One 17,000+ crowd at Bradford would eclipse the entire weekly attendance for the whole of League 1.
I am heavily in favour of increasing the number of grassroots teams and players. In many ways it’s much better to have 10 of them than one Toronto, but only if they’re producing their own players and are self-sufficient.
Why have Catalans and Toulouse worked?
It’s simple really. They are old, historic clubs.
Rugby League is so keen to start clubs afresh with basically no investment or marketing (The latter, let’s face it, the RFL are terrible at). Gloucestershire are a university team. Seriously. That’s essentially it. Catalans had the history and the devotees.
I sat next to a French lad at Magic last year who had ‘XIII’ tattooed on his hand, in the exact spot where most blokes in pubs has swallows. He cared. It was part of him, and of his identity.
The thing that the RFL have never seemed to understand, is that we aren’t Australia. Their structure has always been one of regions, that have a wealth of junior clubs, which then funnel into a professional team. The disastrously reverse engineered duel-reg system and the regional academies are hangovers of this thinking. Australia win. Australia are rich, so being like them must be the way forward.
In fact Australian expansion, post Super League War, is so effective because the regions they expand into have had Rugby League in some format for decades. The Central Coast, Perth, Wellington, they all sell out expansion games every year, or have the stadiums and fan bases in place.
Similarly, the AFL, when it expanded into Western Sydney, had 8-10,000 people signed up as members of the GWS Giants before the club even picked a goal. The MLS too mostly promotes teams from within its own lower league structure.
The RFL, well, they just seem desperate to take any interest offered. Prospective teams don’t beg the RFL, like in these over sports, the RFL begs people outside the heartlands to care about the game.
Wasps – A dangerous example
A Sky poll shown before the recent Wakefield v Leigh game had 83% of RL fans against clubs moving cities. In true Sky style, instead of discussing that illuminating fact, we had to discuss whether those people were right or not. Despite it being their opinion.
Still…Wasps. Good old establishment Rugby Union team Wasps. By making a reasonable success of their move to Coventry they have set a dangerous precedent and created a handy excuse for any similar move by any similar club in RL. Except, there aren’t many similar clubs.
Before Union became officially professional in 1995, teams like Wasps were playing in fields with tiny club houses attached. They didn’t have fan bases that spanned generations. Look at any Premiership club’s Wikipedia page, they are essentially empty for the 100 years before professionalism. As if it was pre-history. It never happened.
In fact, nothing much did.
Wasps first played in Sudbury, then Adams Park, then out in Coventry, after spending a brief period at Loftus Road. They never really had much of a home, not since they became internationally recognised anyway. Most the London Union teams fled London in search of an affordable stadium themselves. The London Irish even play at Reading. It’s no surprise the Broncos have struggled to get settled.
Union has mass latent support around the country, in a way League doesn’t, mainly due to centuries of over-exposure to the English Club side. It’s something they can tap into that League can’t. They had strong foundations for that Coventry move, we don’t.
So, what should we do, how should we expand?
If the RFL want an Australian system then let’s build it. Any team that desires to enter into the league must have three youth/amateur teams under it. At the very least. Alongside a glut of local schools playing the game. Manchester Rangers have the beginnings of this with the Belle Vue Bees. Hemel have it too, winning schools tournaments.
Also, let’s get real here, new clubs need stringent guidelines regarding finances and marketing. If Oxford want a team, great, but let’s not have 400 fans a game and no permanent stadium in place. How many people in Oxford even know who they are?
One nightmare would be a league 20 years from now containing 4-5 North American teams all staffed primarily with British, French and Aussie players. Eric Perez says that the national make-up of the Wolfpack doesn’t really matter, as Canadians are used to their teams containing foreigners. Well, if it becomes a drain on an already small talent pool, then it will matter greatly.
I would hugely welcome a North American conference and a European one, that meet each other in the cup and in the playoffs at the end of the year. But I am not a fantasist. That league needs Wakefield, Bradford and maybe a Toulouse, London or Halifax etc. in it. But only if they have the players of standard and commercial base to function.
Similarly, this is something the NRL could easily replicate, with the number of teams that want to enter their comp and the number of players they have at their disposal.
Ultimately Rugby League is a great product with an excellent sporting culture. It just lacks players, cash and marketing. North America, fingers crossed, may be able to supply all three, but that can never be at the expense of what we already have.
Why should we be Worried? – Well, under 20 years ago a club we all know and love was in financial turmoil, had gates of under 5,000 and played in an old, crumbling Victorian stadium. Think on.