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Is British rugby league preparing for a revolution?

The iconic Wembley Stadium. (Image supplied)
Expert
27th February, 2018
50
1935 Reads

While the NRL wrestles with constitutional change, rugby league in Britain is at the crossroads – the same way it was when it switched to summer shortly after its centenary year.

On one side of the 12th parallel, there are the 12 Super League clubs. They are, to varying degrees, preparing to go it alone – hire their own chief executive, grab a bigger share of the TV money, and play more games overseas.

On the other side is the rest of the sport: the Championship and League One clubs, the amateur game, the representative set-up, kids leagues.

If one report is to be believed, eight of these teams will be invited to cross the drawbridge before it is pulled up. After that, it’s sink or swim for everyone outside the walled city with 20 occupants – two divisions of ten.

Caught in the crossfire, among many others, are the new teams from across the pond.

Toronto Wolfpack CEO Eric Perez fronts the press.

Toronto Wolfpack CEO Eric Perez.

The Toronto Wolfpack owe the Rugby Football League, having started out in League One last year, for their very existence. But now they have the roundtable of Super League owners to impress. Unlike the New Zealand Warriors, who get exactly one 16th of the NRL’s allocation to clubs of TV money, the feeling is that the Wolfpack will get none of it if they go up next year.

Instead, they’ll get to keep the lion’s share of North American TV rights – when and if they materialise.

Where does that leave the proposed New York, Boston and Hamilton Ontario bids? Do they attempt to ingratiate themselves to the Super League clubs or to the likes of Batley and Oxford, who will presumably be their opponents at first?

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What if they have to chose which competition to join?

After all, Wigan owner Ian Lenegan did predict while in Australia that Super League would become an international competition within five years, throwing Perth into the mix.

Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington has called all this speculation “piss-poor journalism” but given the secrecy surrounding some these seismic pressures, speculation is inevitable.

“Do Wigan just want to go play exhibition games around the world now?” the great Garry Schofield pondered on the Proper Sport Rugby League Show a week or so back.

The lower division clubs have met to prepare for battle, with RFL chairman Brian Barwick in attendance. They have a binding contract on their side – a structure that is locked in until 2021.

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Super League clubs will find it difficult to break away before then, as Hetherington pointed out.

But there are fears Sky won’t tip in anywhere near as much money when that deal is up. And unlike the NRL, the British game doesn’t have the money to invest in an expensive digital operation in preparation for the TV rights apocalypse.

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It’s in this climate that there is a clamouring for the lifeboat.

There has been an explosion of ‘alternative’ media in the game this year, with the Rugby AM program getting on National TV and at Bradford match attracting more than 100,000 viewers on Facebook Live.

Toronto are streaming their matches outside Canada and the UK on a service that the biggest Premier League clubs utilise.

If Super League does successfully expand into North America, the prize is a big one: being able to compete with the NRL instead of play a distant second fiddle with a salary cap one-third the size.

Regardless of Hetherington’s caution, something is about to blow up. We just don’t know quite what at this stage.

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