The future of rugby league in England is once again at a crossroads.
Though as all fans know, the game seems to have a strange capability of surviving. Maybe it has to do with the type of people who follow the game or the game itself. For many, it is the ultimate team contact sport on the planet. Yes, fans of other codes and sports would scoff at such a notion, but it remains true for fans of the 13-a-side game.
However, what does it say when the fan base dwindles? What happens when society changes and the way a younger generation engage with sport and leisure is vastly different to the older generation? In essence, what does it matter if fans think they are watching the greatest spectacle on earth, but only 5000 people are there to witness it?
The COVID pandemic has wreaked havoc on the sport in England, and it may recover – though it may not. Sky Sports has reduced its funding, and this will inevitably impact the clubs. As such, the administration is considering a raft of changes. Hopefully, unifying Super League and the Rugby Football League is high on the agenda.
Though there are other matters, the issue of crowds (on many occasions, a lack of) is an annual concern for the game in England. For example, Salford traditionally struggles to get crowds far above the 5000 figures despite showing promise during the past couple of seasons.
Furthermore, the player talent and depth are a significant concern for the sport. Undeniably, the community game has suffered over the past two seasons, which leaves more questions than answers. Will the development of players continue, or will the production line dry up? Then, the administrators need to consider – what happens if the next wave of youth chooses other options in a post-COVID, concussion-worried world? Remember, rugby league has a limited reach and appeal already. What if the base of the sport crumbles?
At present, it appears the governing body are putting their hopes on a successful World Cup. However, the last time England beat Australia (not as Great Britain) was at the 1995 World Cup opener. Hopes of a victory are just that – hope. England should make the semi-finals, but the Pacific Islands nations of Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea could prove a challenge for the current English squad. This probability alone shows the decline of the England national team.
Fair enough, they did come within a missed tackle and ankle tap of an upset over Australia in 2017, but one tournament won’t solve all the game’s problems. What will? Investment in the grassroots. That is a typical response but it is still valid.
On top of this, an investment into the structure of the sport at a club and international level. The game needs a system that stands the test of time – ideally, Super League clubs should have a first, reserves and an academy set up. International success is necessary, but more than just one-off victories – sustained success will build momentum with the public and sponsors alike.
Finally, the sport needs investment from outside sources. This investment will allow the clubs to recruit the best English talent. If a rugby player can earn 30,000 pounds playing for Hull or get paid double that figure for a team in Bristol, then Bristol wins. Granted, people will still watch their local team, but the masses will choose the sport with the best players, which is where the business world and sponsorship will follow.
Naturally, there are many pieces to the puzzle that need to be put together before the sport of rugby league can reach the heights it desires in England. I’d suggest funding a media department that promotes rugby league to a wider audience through local and national media. This process would help bring in and promote sponsors, players and the game in general. Though, without funds, which the clubs so desperately need, that idea may be a tough ask.
For fans in Australia, they may be asking: Why should Australian’s care about England? Why should Australia care about England’s performances? Why should Australia care about rugby league’s popularity in England?
The answer is straightforward – if the game declines in England to such an extent that they are as competitive in depth and skill as France, then rugby league in Australia will be more or less like the Australian Football League – only a local game.
In time, the lack of international recognition or ability to attract a global audience will limit rugby league’s chance of obtaining better sponsorship deals from global partners. What is worse is if these global brands invest in rugby union then the sport in Australia may find itself becoming a development pathway for international union competitions.
Okay, it may be hyperbolic in pessimism, but why not seek ways to grow the game? And if Australia can help England in any way – why not?
As fans, we should wonder: Can the English national team threaten Australia and win the World Cup? Can the administration in the northern hemisphere reverse the popularity decline of the sport? Ultimately, is there any hope for the sport of rugby league in England?