View From The Touchline - By Phil Caplan

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Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Foresight is better.

When the ‘eights’ were unveiled, it seemed like a flawedconcept, so much so that Scottish football – the nearest equivalent to rugbyleague with its set up, structure and commerciality – eschewed it, and theSwiss league, the only ones to try it, quickly ditched it.

The painful, laborious ‘consultation’ period, which servedonly to implement what had already been decided without modification oramendment but ticked a box, only brought up more reservations that the KPIs –more sell out games, greater commercial income, increased participation – couldnot possibly be met.

First and foremost, the increase in games and more fixturesagainst the same opposition offered familiarity breeding contempt, falseeconomy, rather than the hoped for but unachievable ‘every minute matters.’

That is at the nub of the sport’s current overall malaisehere, we play too many games over too long a period; we cannot market ourselvesas a summer sport nor have the quality to sustain such a long period ofsupposedly elite competition – our limited jam is spread too thinly.

The eights concept was economically flawed not least whenadded to uneven income distribution in the championship that effectively set aglass ceiling, and ensured that the schism between the full and part time gamewould become wider and almost insurmountable, a private investor apart.

The eagerness of those who implemented it with such afanfare to now distance themselves from and ditch it without accountability isa real concern.

Having worked almost exclusively among fans to embody a seasonticket culture – whilst at the same time, rightly, looking for events - the eights meant that, coming to the mostexciting part of the season, they not only didn’t know who or when their sidewas playing but what they would be striving for.

Sport is all about creating habit and the format broke itand was ridiculously and unnecessarily complicated for both committed fans andcasual spectators to fathom.

Promotion and relegation has always been an issue withinrugby league. With insufficient top class players – witness the rationale inthe reduction from 14 Super League teams to 12 – it creates a yo-yo syndromewith the promoted teams having too little time to prepare their infrastructureand recruit at the high end of a limited market.

That’s exacerbated in a salary-capped sport. The movementbetween the divisions in the period of the eights has not been determined byon-field competition as much as by economics – teams, especially at the time ofthe split – have bought their way out.

To date, one side has gone down from Super League and comeback up, another vice versa and, at the other end, we still have only fourwinners’ names on the SL trophy after 22 seasons.

The issue is not the structure, but playing with the cardsin hand rather than the ones you historically had or are hoping to get.

The roots of the sport, economic and geographical – and thetwo are inextricably interlinked – are perishing in a number of places throughno fault of the clubs or their fans.

Industries, schools, pubs, working men’s clubs, schools thatall nourished and supported the game are no longer there, family as well associetal leisure choice ties have been cut.

It’s to that the sport needs to respond with a long termblueprint, not shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic, which is why newmarkets are essential at a time that the elite competition in the summer erahas never been so geographically specific.

Traditional clubs in deprived areas need to be realisticallynurtured, given something meaningful and attainable to play for and even morebecome community hubs, but there has to be a distinction between full time andpart time.

The ‘powerhouses’ will pull in the money but the concept ofsome kind of ‘feeder’ relationship to ensure trickle down and development isfar more important than artificially creating competition.

There can still be windows of opportunity and properlymonitored standards to keep a place (they exist in the never implemented‘Framing the Future’ from 1994) but being full time is not about players – thatamount is covered by current tv disbursements – but infrastructure andfacility.

There is also a desperate need to capture growth in newmarkets for women – more people watched a WSL game the other week than in anyLeague 1 fixture including two Cumbrian clubs, Hunslet and Keighley being athome – and disability.

New audiences and commercial sponsors are being attractedbut the implementation plan piecemeal.

We have also not had the perspicacity to investigate andevaluate the effects at the top of the sport of going full time, in terms ofthe product on offer – space is limited as all players are now athletes – andgreater injury incidence partly because of enhanced training.

We need to keep our stars on the field in order to promotethem and the spectacle we pride ourselves - and rely on as our default – whichis currently, at best, patchy.

How are the on-field mechanics, and philosophy of what thesport should look like to bring greater spectacle, going to be achieved withoutRFL input?

That’s another key reason why the sport should have – andcan only afford – one, visionary CEO and a 20-year, no change strategy that hasto involve expansion.

All of this comes under marketing in its broadest term,something which – especially under the eights – we have under-resourced,continuing to preach to the converted.

By Phil Caplan.

In the summer era, the sport has had more money than ever before– the white elephant is the tv deal that runs out in 2021 - but currently appearsto be appealing to its most restricted market with its lowest profile, witnessthe fact that the unseemly squabbling between SL club chairman on the announcementof Rob Elstone – and the premature dissolution of the eights – barely made anational headline.

We can’t even promote bad publicity at present.

In many ways, this feels like the modern equivalent of 1973/4when the sport was at its nadir in terms of attendances, sponsorship and feel good.

Messer’s Oxley and Howes, principally through benevolentdictatorship, risk-taking and negotiation with all parties turned it aroundand, within 15 years, were selling out Wembley for internationals.

In doing so, they created a generation of stars. Sadly, theyare the names that the general public remembers, not the current gladiators.


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