Super League and the unknown Trap Door

Stephen Lownsbrough

Stephen Lownsbrough

The recent decision by the Super League  clubs at their annual general meeting was that the Super League will revert to 12 teams for the start of the 2015 season. The final decision on the format of the League structure will be made at an extraordinary general meeting next month.

The two options to be decided on are a traditional promotion-relegation format of 2 leagues of 12 teams, or a more radical version whereby the 2 leagues of 12 are split into 3 qualifying divisions two-thirds of the way through the season.

Super League began in 1996 with 12 clubs; it went briefly to 14 in 1999 before reverting to 12 a year later. It stayed at 12 until 2009 when Crusaders and Salford were admitted as part of a new licensing system.

The licensing system has come under scrutiny as, year on year, clubs have delivered annual trading deficits and too many dead rubber games at the end of the season where teams have nothing left to play for. The licensing system was voted for in 2009 to help develop home grown talent on the field because, without the threat of relegation, coaches could select promising youngsters to represent their respective clubs and gain valuable first team experience.

Promotion and relegation has gathered much support recently, particularly from the likes of Featherstone, Halifax and Leigh who all feel Super League is a closed shop for them. Despite their aspirations and on field performances the 3 year licensing cycle denies them the opportunity to step up to the top level. The sport as a product needs to have more excitement and drama injected back into it for the fans and perhaps promotion and relegation would make the game more marketable and attractive to a potential League sponsor, which the game is currently lacking.

The decision to cut the League from 14 to 12 is due to the relatively small player pool in England. Under the licensing era it has been estimated that for every 3 home-grown players there is 1 overseas player. With the threat of relegation would we see clubs panic buying overseas players rather than taking the time and investment to develop academy players? As it stands there are 14 full time teams and the Championship is semi professional. A promotion-relegation format has the potential for clubs to take the plunge and go full time in an attempt to make the step up to Super League and therefore more opportunity for more players to be full-time professionals.
A team that is already full time is the London Broncos; they currently lie at the foot of the Super League table and as it stands would find themselves in the Championship at the start of the 2015 season. Aside from the Catalan Dragons, they are the only team in the Super League not from Lancashire or Yorkshire. For the brand of Rugby League to develop, losing the only team from the capital would be a huge blow for the game. They would receive a parachute payment for the first season they were in the Championship, but if they were not to bounce straight back into the Super League the following season they could easily face financial ruin.
Whichever format is chosen the consensus is definitely that the game needs to bring back the drama and excitement that has been found wanting under the licensing era. Fans deserve to see more competitive and meaningful fixtures throughout the season.
The development of home-grown talent needs to be high on the list of the RFL’s  priorities if we are to move away from the licensing system. Will coaches be judged on short term success in steering a club away from relegation or developing youngsters who can go on and represent England on the international stage?
The restructure will hopefully improve the product of Rugby League enticing new sponsors and commercial backers to invest into the sport.

Stephen J Lownsbrough
Associate
Sports Law Department
SLownsbrough@LawBlacks.com
0113 207 0000

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