Airlie Exile #3 – A realist’s view of Rugby League Expansion

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

Wakefield Hull FC

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 ten 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. Rugby-wise they’ll dominate the lower leagues, 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.

Litten Toronto

Oxford, Hemel and the like

Player recruitment is such an issue that many southern teams in League One 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
4 Doncaster
5 Barrow Raiders
6 Keighley Cougars
7 Hunslet
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 One.

I am heavily in favour of increasing the number of grassroots teams and players. In many ways it’s much better to have ten of them than one Toronto, but only if they’re producing their own players and are self-sufficient.

Why have Catalans and Toulouse worked? 

catalan hull fc 2016

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 have 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 dual-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

B437FC00-F632-49FC-9719-0524FB5650A2

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?

Bradford

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. 

 

(Updated 10/09/2018)

 

Author Image
About Tom Crosby
Tom has been an Airlie Exile since he left university in 2010. Living in South Korea, China, India, Argentina, London and now Edinburgh, it's been pretty difficult for him to keep up with the mighty Black and Whites. However, using twitter, online radio, dail-up internet, some very dodgy websites and a hundred programs to climb the Great Firewall of China, he's managed it. Right now, he writes the gloriously self-indulgent Airlie Exile blog and unfortunately, he thinks he's funny.

6 Comments on Airlie Exile #3 – A realist’s view of Rugby League Expansion

  1. Best article I’ve read in a long time, spot on in so many points..the rfl needs to get its act together quickly before the game we all love is lost forever, York is another example, no premier football team to worry about so get out in the schools and get promoting.. get up into Cumbria and get a super league team sorted from the 3 teams up there..

  2. Author Image Chris Walker // 27th March 2017 at 7:38 pm // Reply

    I agree with many of the comments in Tom’s article, plus Dave’s suggestions regarding York and Cumbria. I could actually see a North American league comprising teams from both the USA & Canada being successful – ice hockey already provides a precedent, with teams from both countries competing together, as do baseball and basketball to a lesser extent.
    I’d also love to see a European Union league, comprising teams from European countries other than the UK, including France, leaving Super League to just consist of UK teams.
    The big question regarding any expansion plans is how to actually introduce a successful RL club into a new area. Going back 100+ years, this was relatively easy – most working people worked on a Saturday morning and wanted a cheap and easily accessible form of entertainment on a Saturday afternoon. Having a local RL club (or soccer club) met this need. These days people have far more options open to them, and it’s hard to get people to start following a new club in an unfamiliar sport. This is then compounded by the problem of retaining fans once you’ve got them. Years ago a majority of each generation tended to stay within their club’s catchment area when they grew up. People are far more mobile now, especially the 50% who go to university these days. So getting a youngster to watch a club no longer means a supporter for life.
    Personally I’ve come to doubt whether the idea of building up from grassroots really works, because it’s such a huge leap from having people play the game in schools and at amateur level to having 5000+ people willing to turn up and watch a professional RL team on a regular basis.
    So I actually wonder if top down might be the only workable option ie:
    – Set up a league with teams in cities across several European countries
    – Sell TV rights on the basis that, whilst live crowds will initially be poor, a decent number of armchair fans will watch a team representing their country
    – Use the TV rights to fund the marketing needed to establish both the game at grassroots level and to generate decent levels of live support at games.

  3. Author Image Airlie Undercover // 28th March 2017 at 3:11 am // Reply

    Cheers lads, thanks for the sensible thought-out replies.

    I think you’ve got a real point Chris about the competition for fans, from all areas, you could even add in the changing racial demographics of areas too. I once went to a Batley game and lots of young Asian lads were playing cricket in cages built onto Mount Pleasant. So I do think the cultural shift might has been accidentally detrimental to Hunslet, or Dewsbury etc.

    That’s a side issue though, and not one that can’t be overcome.

    I’m just so wary of writing a list of European cites and then sticking alliterative animal’s names on the end and expecting it to work.

    But, I do think those youngsters, mostly, stay supporters for life. I’m called the Airlie Exile, as I live in Edinburgh and have lived in South Korea, India and China whilst still supporting the game. They might not get to every match, but still, they’ll support.

    Rugby League needs to realise how fragile it is, frankly. How few people play it. How low the player pool is. Once you’ve an abundance of talent in Birmingham, with 5-6 good strong amateur teams, then let’s think about a team.

    • The rfl and a lot of clubs are very worried about losing supporters and rightfully so, but they also need to be responsible for promoting and marketing the game in a positive manner, I started an online radio station for Cas Tigers 3 years ago, you wouldn’t believe the walls I had to climb and the frustration I faced from the club initially , which I fully understood, but the lack of foresight from the rfl was astounding .. my little idea has gone from a handful of listeners to over 120,000 listeners in 78 countries..I did this and still do it as a voluntary service to my club and raised its profile in doing so, the rfl won’t even answer my emails about expanding this cover other clubs..guess that says a lot about the state of things

  4. Just to elaborate a bit on where I’m coming from Tom, it seems to me that TV revenue is now absolutely key to a sport’s success, and one of the reasons RL struggles in the UK is that the media bias against our sport makes it difficult to negotiate a fair level of TV rights relative to what other sports achieve. Back in the 80s, soccer was struggling with falling gates, hooliganism, delapidated stadiums etc. But on the back of ever-increasing TV rights, it’s now thriving. OK, so a lot of that money simply goes into paying players more than they’re worth – but some has been invested in new stadiums, and in general the game is a lot healthier financially than it was. Rugby Union benefits from the huge positive media bias towards it, resulting in massive TV rights for the 6 nations, which provides the free publicity that has helped grow revenues and crowds at club level.
    Given that TV channels have a need to find content to fill 24 hours a day broadcasting, it’s just possible that RL might be able to secure a decent level of TV rights from half a dozen or more countries to televise a european league. No broadcaster would pay massive money to screen a minority sport in a particular country. But if that country only has 1 or 2 teams in the league, then arguably you only need TV revenues of £4m a year to pay for those 2 teams. Obviously the whole thing hinges on whether it would be possible to secure enough money via TV rights sold across a number of countries to support 12 teams. RL is already played at amateur level in a number of European countries, and it’s just possible that having a televised professional club would drive grassroots expansion rather than grassroots expansion sowing the seeds for the professional game. I’m not saying that this top-down approach would definitely work – but the bottom-up approach of starting from grassroots level doesn’t seem all that easy either.

  5. One other point I’d make is that the landscape has changed dramatically over the years that I’ve been following RL. One example is the demographic shifts you mentioned – places like Batley, Dewsbury and Oldham etc have a very different set of demographics to what they had in the 1960s & 70s. Another big change is the lack of loyalty to local clubs – basically a lot of younger people want to support a successful team that’s winning trophies, regardless as to whether it’s local. Hull’s geograhical isolation makes it a partial exception to this rule. But even in Hull, whilst you don’t come across many people who support RL teams other than FC and Rovers, there are probably as many people who support Man Utd, Liverpool and Leeds as support Hull City. This is a problem for RL in areas that aren’t as geographically isolated as Hull. Years ago is you lived to the south of Leeds you would support Hunslet, Batley or Dewsbury. Nowadays a kid brought up there is more likely to go across Leeds to Headingley, to watch a team regularly competing for and winning trophies. That’s part of the problem with grassroots growth these days. A place like Hemel Hempstead might seem on paper to be a decent development spot, given that amateur RL has been played in the area for a number of years and there’s no professional soccer or RL in the town. But the point is that most kids brought up in Hemel who are interested in sport are probably already fans of Chelsea, or Arsenal or Spurs or Man Utd, or Harlequins or Wasps etc. These days there simply isn’t the local focus that used to exist years ago.

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