What rugby league must do to save itself

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In the past month, the sport of rugby league has received another major blow. The London Broncos, the only professional London based team and, in fact, the only professional English rugby league team south of Warrington, have gone part time. 

The only full-time London based team are no longer professional, leaving the sport with near to nothing in the nation’s capital. The Broncos had been professional for a good while, and even professional since their relegation to the Championship from the Super League in 2019.

Whilst not earning promotion since relegation, the Broncos have looked good and have continued to develop talent from the South-East, so what’s happened that has made them make the decision to become a part time club?

Well, fundamentally, like most rugby league problems, it comes down to money. The Super League have recently had to renegotiate their TV deal with Sky – the last deal was worth around £40 million however the new deal is said to only be around £25-£30 million, a loss of at least £10 million.

And while this will hurt Super League clubs, it is already proving to hurt Championship and League One clubs even harder. This is because the trickle down payments that the RFL get will only be £5 million spread across all those clubs – this central funding fall is what the Broncos cite as the major reason for the decision to go part time.

Now some people might think, ‘does it really matter that the Broncos are part time, they didn’t have success in the Super League and rugby league is a northern sport?’, and to that I would say, yes, yes it does matter, and it matters a whole lot. 

Rugby league is in a perilous position, whilst every other sport is experiencing increasing TV deals, rugby league is regressing. Whilst other sports like cricket are being innovative with the Hundred, rugby league is stagnating.

We need more eyes on the sport. We need to capture the next generation of avid rugby league fans and we cannot just hope that specific parts of the North are enough because they are not. We are not living sustainably in rugby league, we are teetering on the brink, and the Broncos is yet another symptom of this.

So what can be the remedy for this current and long standing disease in rugby league? Well, a year or so ago I would have said the new transatlantic model with the likes of the Toronto Wolfpack and Ottawa Aces could be the saviours of the sport. But thanks to the short-sightedness of the RFL and the Super League that is dead in the water.

A few months ago, I would have said the World Cup would be the saviour but, thanks to the self-serving decision of making the NRL, that is also dead in the water. So what do we need? Well, money obviously, but how do we get it? We need an injection of imagination.

As much as I hate to admit it, we need to take inspiration from cricket (I’m not much of a cricket fan myself, you see) and the Hundred. The Hundred has aimed to bring young fans to the sport and to ‘jazz’ it up a bit, make it fun and vibrant. And that is what we must do.

Rugby league is a fun and exciting sport, it is physical and fast paced so it shouldn’t be that difficult to make every game and event. We also need to expand the amount of Super League teams, probably into a conference system so we don’t make the players play too many games.

We need to bring back old and historic rugby league markets like Bradford, who are too big to not be in the top flight, whilst also looking to new markets like Newcastle and London.

And why not look even further to Europe, to the success of Toulouse and newly formed teams like Valencia and get them involved?

The fear is that this kind of expansion will take the game away from its roots, but it will not because rugby league’s roots are professional and revolutionary. Though if we do not expand and evolve like we must, rugby league might well cease to be professional at all.

Image: Chris via flickr

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