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Northern hemisphere rugby league finds a crossroads in its 'dirty old town'

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Expert
8th April, 2019
18
1467 Reads

It could be one of the most important meetings in rugby league history, and the fact there is unlikely to be a single TV camera outside only serves to illustrate that significance.

This Thursday at 12.30pm local time at the AJ Bell Stadium in Salford, UK, representatives of bids from New York City and Ottawa will front British League One and Championship clubs and state their cases for inclusion in next year.

Super League clubs are so worried they’ve asked to be present. They’ve already made it clear there will be “additional criteria” if either team wants to play in the premier division at some point down the track.

Yet it’s possible not a single reporter will doorstop the meeting and not a single photo will be taken of club chairmen and bid chiefs walking in, and you can almost certainly forget about it making the evening news.

Rugby league is a small sport in the United Kingdom, yet there is no guarantee consortia from one market of 9,000,000 and another of 1,000,000 will be accepted, even if their bids stack up.

At the end of the presentations there will be a show of hands. Any Super League clubs present will not be invited to vote. Then the Rugby Football League board will make a final decision.

It’s not widely known that the 1949 Irish pub standard, Dirty Old Town, is about Salford, not Dublin. Leeds-based Australian filmmaker David Gilbank calls the region “the ruins of a faded empire”, the places where most professional rugby league clubs are dotted along the M62 motorway.

London Broncos defeat Toronto Raptors to make it back into the Super League.

Super League is talking expansion too. (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Some of the cities are gleaming metropolises dripping in new investment, like Leeds and Manchester (professional clubs are dotted around the latter’s borders but avoid its centre like hairs that won’t grow on a malignant mole), but many are struggling, dilapidated towns where you might still find a full English breakfast for 99p.

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Nevertheless, as I overheard a marketing type say to his colleague in a London cafe last week, “It’s on the BBC, which is good”. And it plays events at Old Trafford, Wembley and now Anfield each year.

Entry level to the semi-professional ranks is inexpensive compared to most sports; such sides in new areas often lose Cup ties to hardened amateur teams from the north.

That makes English rugby league a cheap option for someone trying to play professional sports team owner in east coast North American cities.

You want to sell tickets, merch and media rights but can’t dream of owning a baseball, football, ice hockey or basketball side? Heard of rugby league?

The much more widely known rugby union has its own infrastructures in that part of the world, far too much red tape for a would-be tycoon.

Rugby league has nothing. It’s your metaphorical 99p full English. With a little government backing, a few sponsors and some wealthy individuals, expenses that would make the heads of Batley or Featherstone spin can be raised in skyscraper-dotted cities of the north-eastern United States and the south-east of Canada.

Before you know it, New York are playing old York.

But the local builders, millionaire engineers, software barons and concert promoters behind English clubs did not get involved to spread the game of rugby league to North America.

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Realising their wealth one day, they sought to ensure the teams they followed as school children would remain solvent and win silverware.

With only two or three Super League games a week even televised in their own market, their clubs benefit from what one CEO described as a pie and pint quota of expenditure from visiting fans.

Perpignan-based Catalans bring so few supporters with them across the channel they were charged to defend their Challenge Cup title this year, asked to cover the cost of the empty seats.

Catalans Dragons win the Challenge Cup.

The Catalans win the 2018 Challenge Cup (Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

In British sports spectatordom the ability to attend away games is considered by many a birthright. The idea that you might have to catch a plane to do so remains foreign and unpalatable.

Modern professional sport runs on TV rights money of course, with gates just the garnish. And to be fair to English team owners, the new bidders bring with them only the prospect of more rights income, but with no guarantee of it.

When Toronto offered to take no share of Sky’s TV rights and instead give money to Rupert Murdoch’s network in return for showing their games, the existing clubs bit their hands off as a short-term boon to their bottom lines.

But if the TV rights do materialise across the Atlantic, the Wolfpack will get the lion’s share of it.

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Imagine the Warriors being about to keep most of what Sky in the Shakey Isles pay for the NRL – or for that matter the Broncos getting paid directly by Channel Nine for the value of all those Friday night broadcasts in south-east Queensland.

Ottawa seems to want to share rights income equally; we don’t know New York’s position.

So the owners and chairmen and CEOs will have three important decisions to make on Thursday.

One: do the bids stack up financially? Are they stable or will the club be unable to complete its fixtures after one or two seasons?

Expansion has a poor record of success in rugby league; it’s estimated Melbourne have cost $80 million over the years to keep afloat.

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Two: even if the numbers add up, as turkeys, are we voting for Christmas? If the existing clubs look after themselves and the RFL’s remit is to look after the member clubs, will anyone in the room feel that the propagation of rugby league is their responsibility?

And, finally, three: if we accept them, how much money can we screw them for? How much can we bend them over? These guys are clearly desperate and cashed up. We’re not.

Let’s make it 30 business class airfares for each game across the Atlantic, half a week in a five-star hotel, a couple of million pounds bond. What else? Personal butler for the visiting chairman? We’ll only get this chance once, let’s take them to the cleaners.

Rugby league was born on 29 August 1895 in a similar meeting on the other side of the Pennines.

No matter how you dress it up, those 21 clubs voted in favour of themselves out of self-interest.

Whatever happens on Thursday, don’t expect their motivations to have changed much in the intervening 124 years.