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The NRL is sleeping on the World Club Challenge - it could be one of their most profitable products

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23rd February, 2024
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There’s something about losing that really concentrates the mind.

If you want proof, look at how the Panthers are treating their fourth crack at the World Club Challenge, the only trophy to evade them in their illustrious history.

In 1991, it was an afterthought to their Premiership win, held just two weeks later, on the other side of the world with a Wigan side packed with talent against a hungover, jet-lagged Panthers.

In 2004, they were rolled on a by a Bradford side that was dominant at a time in which Super League had never been stronger – English clubs won seven of eight in that era – and the conditions in Huddersfield in February could not have been more foreign.

Last time out, it was the ultimate smash and grab, with a St Helens squad on single-minded mission, a stacked squad built over four years of success and a Penrith group battered by the World Cup.

Now, the whole group is hell-bent on righting that wrong, attempting to do to the Warriors what their great rivals did at the foot of the mountains 12 months ago.

It won’t be easy: the stadium has been sold out for weeks, such is the fervour in England, and the weather in Wigan is set for five degrees and snowing come kick off.

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That the game is taken so seriously, both by the Panthers and the paying public in the UK, is another proof of concept for the World Club Challenge, which has gone through peaks and troughs of popularity over the years.

During the 2000s, it was a genuine tentpole of the season, but by 2011 – per Steve Mascord, who has seen more World Club Challenges than you’ve had hot dinners – the Dragons weren’t that interested and in Covid, it was an easy ditch.

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 18: Nathan Cleary of the Panthers looks dejected after defeat during the World Club Challenge and NRL Trial Match between the Penrith Panthers and St Helens at BlueBet Stadium on February 18, 2023 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Nathan Cleary and the Panthers look dejected after defeat in the World Club Challenge. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Last year showed that Super League clubs could be more than competitive, and Sunday morning’s clash (AEDT) shows that the public desire is there too.

Now, with rugby league looking to expand the footprint to America, it’s worth remembering that these clashes have taken place there in the past and, if the NRL and Super League are serious, can do again.

Leeds played Souths in Florida in 2008 and Wigan expressed an interest in playing the Panthers as part as of Vegas extravaganza, and perhaps one of the central issues of the Challenge – the vastly differing environments of Australia and northern England in February – could be solved by such an arrangement in which both sides were essentially the away team.

If the NRL and Super League could form a joint venture specifically designed to take this fixture and make it an annual event, they could then sell the hosting rights, the TV rights and the sponsorship to the highest bidder, especially in an environment where it could be billed as a legitimate world championship.

Currently, this is a bit of a dead time for global sports – hence why the Vegas experiment is now – while also being a time in which outdoor events such as rugby league could be played in lucrative markets in the Middle East, America and Asia without major disruption.

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Think about it: we’ve had the Super Bowl, the bulk cricket playing period around Christmas, the Australian Open and the hefty soccer schedules in December and January, but we’re not at the similarly hectic period of the NBA and NHL playoffs, F1, the soccer title run-ins in both domestic and European football competitions, Roland Garros and the major cricket league, the IPL.

Saudi Arabia is currently throwing all the money in the world at its Riyadh Season, both Qatar and Dubai are screaming out for events.

: Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs looks to pass in the fourth quarter against Nick Bosa #97 of the San Francisco 49ers during Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium on February 11, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Since the turn of the year, the Saudis have paid to host meaningless tours of MLS soccer teams, meaningless Super Cups from Italy and Spain, a meaningless tennis open and several events across boxing, MMA and WWE events.

Qatar has a tennis event this weekend, MotoGP after that and events in swimming, squash, badminton and volleyball.

The UAE hosts (guess what?) tennis, golf, beach soccer, a cycle race, polo and triathlon.

To reiterate: this is just in January and February. Why not rugby league? At a time when other sports are inventing products so that they can sell them to the Middle East, we are sitting on a great product and playing it in Wigan and Penrith.

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Rusted-on rugby league audiences know that a February date is not ideal for a true test of who the best club side is, but they also know that international footy has to be priority in the time immediately after the Grand Finals on both sides of the world and, realistically, the next best place for the World Club Challenge is as a season starter.

Outside fans, the sort that might want to see a world championship of rugby league for the first time, have no idea that this isn’t the best time of year – they just know there are two champions and they’re about to play off at a highly convenient time for them to watch.

Moreover, this particular fixture is the perfect one to be a roadshow.

Hamad Medjedovic of Serbia lifts the Next Gen ATP Finals Trophy after winning the final against Arthur Fils of France during day five of the Next Gen ATP Finals at King Abdullah Sports City on December 02, 2023 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

(Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

With both sides agreeing beforehand to travel, it could be sold to the highest bidder whether that be the Middle East, America or Asia, and then pitched to fans as the ultimate adventure following their team.

Imagine that we knew now that next year’s event was going to be in Vegas – the Super League would already be marketing holiday packages to their fans ready to go by the time the final whistle.

1500 came from St Helens to Penrith, and that would double if the game was in Dubai or Qatar, and plenty of Aussies could plan around it too.

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The emphasis here, however, has to be on the NRL and the Super League. Traditionally it has not been the English side that has lacked enthusiasm, but both parties have to equally want this to happen to make it into a thing.

Were they to form a company specifically to make this game happen, once a year, regularly and to the highest bidder, it create a product that could be more than viable.

As it stands, it remains an ad hoc, year-to-year operation.

After over a decade of attempting to find a mutually agreeable international calendar that allows stakeholders to go out and sell commercial opportunities around the international game, the next step is to make another tentpole event that can generate more content.

It might be that in future years, the teams that finish first and second in the Premiership ladder win the right to play a money-spinning fixture against, say, the Super League champs and the Challenge Cup winners in the Middle East, while teams 3-7 qualify for Vegas.

It’s just a speculation, now, but all ideas once were. The trick is making them real.

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