In one of his first public acts as Chief Executive of Super League Europe, Robert Elstone made the announcement that the Super 8's format would be scrapped in 2019.
Super 8’s will be replaced with a one up one down promotion/relegation model, although the exact format of this is yet to be announced.
Elstone made the announcement flanked by Simon Moran, Ian Lenagan and Eamonn McManus and it has served to fuel supporters concerns that Super League is attempting to control the destiny of the whole game, at a professional level, deciding for rest of the sport how their future will work.
Wigan Warriors Chairman, Ian Lenagan denied claims that Super League’s attempt to be more in control of its own destiny– which included the appointment of Elstone – was not a breakaway from the RFL and said no matter what changes are made for 2019 the funding given to the lower leagues will be unaffected until at least the end of the broadcast deal which runs to 2021.
Despite their claims, Leeds Rhinos CEO Gary Hetherington, who voted against the change, said it was “an absurd grab for power for the game by a small group of men who think they own the game.”
In November last year Super League clubs moved to take greater control of their own destiny by ousting then RFL chief executive Nigel Wood from its own board following an Extraordinary General Meeting.
The future for the game outside Super League has been uncertain for some time, with the teams in the Championship not knowing what the structure would be beyond this season. Teams in League One are faced with the threat of their competition being ejected from the semi-professional ranks and returned to the amateur game.
The "Super 8's", while not seemingly popular with clubs and fans alike, brought in revenue from the extra games, with the view that the Super League teams participating would bring in greater attendances to the Championship clubs grounds, who now face the loss of this extra revenue. Supporters and clubs alike question whether there will there be an increase in central funding to compensate this loss of income.
There is a fear that the one up one down concept will promote a culture of clubs spending beyond their means to achieve the holy grail of reaching Super League. A situation we haven't seen in Rugby League since the turn of the millennium.
Is this sustainable for the clubs? Does this help grow the game?
Martyn Cheney, Chair of Supporters Direct Rugby League Council, believes that the answer to both those questions is definitely No.
“We have seen in recent seasons, the struggles of Bradford Bulls, now plying their trade in League One. Whitehaven are appealing for a cash injection to keep the club afloat through this season. Both clubs were relying on fans and local businesses to help them through their troubled period.”
“The primary winners of this change will be the three club owners who in the future, will no longer be in danger of relegation. In my view it will see a return to the early days of Super League where there was a two-tier competition, the teams that were in with a chance of winning the competition and those that aren't.”
“This boom or bust culture could lead to the end of some historic names from the game after they have chased the dream of Super League and failed, would we, as Rugby League Fans, be happy to see the likes of Bradford go bust, after chasing the Super League dream?”
But what is the answer? What is the ideal scenario for promotion and relegation? Is there a perfect scenario?
We have asked people who are knowledgeable about the game to give us their views. An experienced club administrator who wished not to be named told us;
“The events of this week have sadly placed healthy debate, discussion and consultation about the ideal structure of the UK rugby league competitions to the side and resulted in the focus being about a power struggle and lack of process.
“Supporters expectations and requirements of the people privileged to run their clubs, or sports at governing body level, are relatively simple; they expect (and rightly so) that decision making is sound, objective, measured, reasoned and motivated by the over-riding concept that the best interests of the sport are paramount.
“Fans place a huge amount of trust in our club and sport CEOs, Chairs and boards. The fundamental non-negotiable in that relationship is that we expect all options, all considerations, all alternatives, all possible outcomes are considered, researched, investigated and tabled when important decisions are made about the future. It isn’t too much to ask. No one can expect perfection.
“I often say to supporters of clubs I am honoured to lead and influence the futures of, ‘Don’t judge the decision, judge the results it produces.’ We cannot expect every decision to turn out perfectly, but we can expect the people making decisions on behalf of the clubs and supporters to be open minded, to explore every option thoroughly, to seek guidance and information from others, to consult all stakeholders and listen to their opinions , and then, and only then, when furnished with all available information and an objective mind, table a decision that is well made, well considered and that due process has demonstrated to be the best option when taking everything into account at this time.
“We should feel confident that the recent events in Rugby League have been the result of careful consideration, and that all stakeholders in the game have been consulted and all possible models and structures have been thoroughly researched and measured against a firm criteria designed to arrive at the absolute optimal structure for Rugby league going forward. Can we confidently say that? I fear not, and the good supporters of the greatest game on the planet deserve and should expect far better from those tasked with governing our wonderful sport.”
Our view is that there is the need for a change, but the game should be working as one, and not contemplating a Super League split.
While change is good and often needed, there also needs to be a period of stability, where the changes can bed in and be given a fair chance to work. Rugby League is a great innovator that many other sports look to emulate, but there have historically been many changes that have quickly reverted to their previous state, rightly or wrongly.
We are strong believers that fans should be involved in and consulted on major decisions that have far reaching effects in the game. Supporters Direct have a Rugby League fans network, where supporters can air their views and raise points for Supporters Direct to take to the RFL for them to address and answer.
Club owners are the custodians of the clubs and should ensure their longevity for future generations.
Sustainable, well-run clubs are the future of the game at all levels, with the clubs playing their part in their communities, encouraging participation and helping the game to flourish.
To be a part of the Supporters Direct Fans Network and make sure your views are heard, register a free account at supporters-direct.org and email Nicola.Hudson@supporters-direct.org to be added to the network.