Big brain essay #2: Growing trees or growing grass
It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on pythagonrl.com. I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.
When talking about how they’d like the sport to look, rugby league nerds, including yours truly, like to put pins in the map. The thinking is that if you put enough teams in big cities then the rest will take care of itself. In reality, most of those teams would fail. There’s few or no fans in those places, there’s barely any strategic considerations given, other than the need to be a player in big media markets, nor any meaningful thoughts as to how the new team will engage with the local population on a sustainable and lasting basis. The best case scenario is that each new team would cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to establish, as the Melbourne Storm did and the Toronto Wolfpack tried to do. It should go without saying that rugby league does not have that kind of cash to effectively buy new fans.
What’s interesting is how infrequently we discuss the structure of the club game – everyone has their preferred format for international tournaments between World Cups – and usually people just vary who is in Super League or the NRL with little thought put into how the different rugby leagues relate to each other or how their structure reflects an understanding of what these competitions, and rugby league, are for.
If you were to start FIFA (the video game, not the governing body) right now and create a customised competition, you’d have a choice of league, group stage then knockout, or straight knockout. Almost all sports use these frameworks to structure their competitions and there’s obviously only so many ways you can arrange head to head matches for a group of teams contesting a title.
At a higher level, you have the ultra-Darwinist domestic European soccer competitions, which are either round robin leagues with promotion and relegation or knockout formats and the two don’t mix. In contrast are the socialist American big four sports leagues, which have a league phase, usually with an unbalanced schedule and some sort of regionalisation, followed by a post season knockout. Pretty much every other team sport takes their cues from these two. I will concede that after a century and a half of experimentation, we’ve probably landed on the optimal outcome but I’m still interested in exploring this a little.
I find it somewhat puzzling that after so long, we can only imagine a couple of different ways for teams to play each other. This kind of thinking has even leaked into multi-competitor-sports, like NASCAR’s Playoffs, where it makes little sense but presumably someone thought it was a good idea for a late-season ratings boost. The recently retooled European soccer competitions – the Champion’s League, the Europa League and the Europa Conference League, as well as the UEFA Nations League – offer some alternatives, with complex qualification arrangements being employed to serve higher purposes. These competitions don’t just decide the best clubs in Europe but are purposely designed to give all participants some meaningful chance of winning a trophy and prize money.
Promotion and relegation has always sounded great in theory but relegation (and, indeed, sometimes promotion) can create existential crises that are otherwise not necessary. Sport’s rules don’t arise from some sense of natural law. Almost all aspects of sport have been arbitrarily decided in the past but we forget this with the convenient fog of time and tradition. Indeed, most traditions now are used as weapons to maintain the status quo in lieu of pursuing change and growth. So why persist?
What keeps the idea afloat in soccer is that even if relegation kills a club or two, there’s dozens ready to step up and take their place. In fact, in a twist of Victorian victim blaming, it’s the club’s fault for not being better prepared, which is ameliorated by parachute payments and leaves clubs on the bubble of leagues to bouncing back and forth. Moreover, pro-rel propagates the myth that any club can rise to the top if they just work hard enough, even though any talk of the long term prospects for a club is almost always couched in how much money can be invested. There is no realistic way to start a new club and use hard work alone to find a way to the top, especially through the last couple of leagues, and certainly not in a human lifespan. While the club works their way through levels nine and ten, the wealth of the top echelon of the top league grows faster still.
Given that, what is the point of promotion and relegation if it’s solely a function of how much money some lunatic is willing to put in? That hardly seems to be about sporting fairness. This kind of cognitive dissonance will eventually result in its elimination, which will very likely be in the favour of capital and closed leagues.
Pro-rel can work in international competitions, because the team exists because the country exists and countries generally don’t fold because of a sporting result, and in amateur competitions, where there’s no need to pay players and so revenue streams are substantially less critical to the existence of the club. Where the competitors are businesses, the change in revenue is often disastrous and the risks make planning and investment more difficult than they would otherwise need to be. The only benefit – which does not accrue to the relegated teams but instead the league they are being ejected from – is if there’s a ratings boost for potential relegation battles at the season’s end which would otherwise be ignored.
For rugby league, there are not the vast resources available to be allowed to waste on promotion and relegation. In the UK, there are 36 “professional” clubs. The loss of any one would be devastating – the money and effort and time invested becomes worthless – and risks dragging down the survivors. Further, the idea that pro-rel is some entrenched tradition is laughable. The RFL only introduced it in the early 70s. Prior to that, every club sat in the same, unwieldy 30-odd club league. There are people alive today who would remember a pre-pro-rel rugby league.
As I’ve suggested, Super League is at a crossroads. Crisis looms at every corner and it is crisis that is when the hard questions get asked and answered. The results of the Super League experiment since 1996 have been dismal, with only the switch from winter to summer being potentially worth salvaging to keep in sync with the sport’s other major league, and no other real, permanent gains to speak of. London, Crusaders, Paris, Sheffield and Toronto have failed to retain their place in the top flight for varying reasons. The separation of Super League from the RFL has only served to create a fiefdom of equally incompetent administrators and a duplication of infrastructure with no discernible purpose that looks almost certain to be undone after just two years. Crowds and the TV deal have seemingly peaked.
Now would seem like an opportune time to consider the competition’s place in rugby league, its place in British culture and how it might structure itself to reflect these and its own values. To do so, it would be worthwhile to consider how rugby league might move out of the shadow of soccer and union and whether it makes sense to try to replicate what they do or try something different.
I would like to make two suggestions, which will require some relatively radical departures from the norm.
The overall goal of expansion, growth and the rest of the lefty rugby league agenda seems to be to grow trees. That is, large and imposing clubs that can stand tall by themselves as markers of the existence of rugby league. Naturally, the most fertile ground for new life is big media markets, where a small sliver of attention from a large group of people can nourish a Wolfpack or a Storm.
However, there is a substantial disconnect between this vision of the future and the existing trees, who are afraid that the sun will be blotted out and aggressively fight new growth. To address this, we need to acknowledge the separate natures of the existing heritage clubs and modern expansion clubs. To that end, I suggest creating two separate streams for rugby league football clubs, a modernist Super League and a heritage Northern Union.
Super League would effectively become the championship of Europe. Run by the RFL, thanks to its marginally more progressive outlook than the clubs that currently run the professional game in England, the focus would be on teams in large markets to be the building blocks of a wide audience that would attract huge ratings or a committed subscriber base, coupled with vision, planning and the capability to implement it. Super League would aim to reach parity with the NRL, in terms of calendar, reach, wealth, structure, regulations and playing ability, so that the sport can have two legitimate major leagues.
The Northern Union then embraces the traditions of the game. The Northern Union can base its marketing around being the northern game, with its teams drawn from a very small geographical range, and in the extremely unlikely event that the northern half of England secedes, rugby league will have a purpose made professional sport for the new country before anyone else. The Northern Union could be run as Super League is now, for and by its member clubs, and they can set regulations and a fixture schedule that best suits their commercial outlook (e.g. 29 round season, primarily attracting away fans, other stereotypes, etc) and initially, with their own broadcast deal. Being a lower tier, its unlikely that an overly long season will compromise major representative teams. The Union would also have no need for expansion, that path being via Super League 2, suiting the more inward looking nature of many clubs and fans.
Based on the clubs currently in play, a realistic starting point might be to award a dual Super League/Northern Union licence to the relatively big market and/or well established clubs, such as Leeds, Warrington, St Helens, Wigan, Hull, Salford and Bradford (taking into account the various intangibles involved, which is still mostly sticking pins in a map, although Salford may not be suitable to be the Manchester team and my impressions of Bradford could be 10 years behind reality). This would allow these teams to run a first team in SL1 and an affiliated second team, either a reserves or juniors team or a revived alternative marque, in the Northern Union (e.g. Wigan could resurrect Wigan Highfield/Liverpool Stanley as a second team or the Devils would run as Manchester in SL1 and Salford in NU). There would be a further four Super League-only licences awarded to London, Catalans, Toulouse and York. The Super League licence gives the team immunity from relegation and for the dual licencees, prevents the second team from being promoted.
With eleven teams, the best Northern Union club would be promoted to take the league to twelve. Said club would be relegated for the champion of the Northern Union if they should finish in the bottom two or three places. Despite my personal distaste for pro-rel, it’d be politically difficult to remove and there are just not enough big clubs in Europe to sustain a reasonable sized Super League without it.
Underneath Super League is Super League 2, separate to the Northern Union. The purpose of Super League 2 is not to entertain or represent or anything but to create a space in which new clubs can get themselves set up. The make up of the league would be constantly changing, as clubs either graduate to SL1 or fail quietly in a place no one cares about. Clubs would be required to submit plans so that the institution of rugby league as a whole can help development of the clubs in a way that aligns with their vision and the SL/RFL can provide feedback, based on previous experience or their own masterplan, and the parties can work together for mutual benefit.
Not every team that enters Super League 2 will graduate or fail. Coventry or West Wales, for example, might choose to remain mainstays, preferring to focus on creating grassroots in their community, develop local talent and passing the talented up the chain to an affiliated SL1 club. Toronto, on the other hand, might have come in with a plan to be promoted to SL1 in two years, outlining the steps and targets they see as being necessary to get ready for the big time.
There would be far fewer regulations in order to facilitate the rapid growth of clubs as needed, perhaps just the same as those as govern the upper end of SL1, which will probably result in significant disparity across what is likely to be a small league (in the event there aren’t enough teams, the league should switch the SL/NU second teams across to pad out SL2). This is just the price we pay for this structure, unless there is a surprising uptake of new clubs in SL2. The initial SL2 clubs would be North Wales, West Wales, Coventry, London Skolars, Newcastle, Sheffield and Ottawa (if they ever make it on to the field), leaving seventeen clubs plus up to seven second teams (possibly one or two would be required in SL2) to contest the Northern Union.
The short term focus of SL1 would be maintaining some sort of commercial and sporting parity between the clubs, preferably by taking from the rich and investing in the poor. There are myriad vehicles for doing this. The key will be maintaining a ceiling (possibly the same ceiling for all professional clubs) but also having a relatively close floor to maintain standards. If a club cannot stand on the floor, it has no business being in the room and a salary cap is useless as a mechanism for parity without a salary floor. Some clubs are not currently configured for this but have the potential to be, with some work.
The medium term focus – over the next decade or so – would be to focus on preparing Sheffield and Newcastle to join SL1 from SL2 and investing now, laying the ground work with the locals, to give them a place in the top flight in the future. The long term focus – over the next twenty or more years – would be identifying the next candidates to follow them. Twenty years should be enough time to build up a London Skolars or North Wales Crusaders to be ready for the big time or even creating teams from scratch in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France (perhaps another tilt at Paris) or elsewhere in Europe in a shorter timeframe. Private investment will be required and the SL/RFL needs to have development officers for rich people to funnel the money into the correct places. The growing footprint of the game should result in a greater audience, improving sponsorship prospects and broadcast deals (or, more likely, an increase in subscribers).
If we must keep the knockout competitions, the Challenge Cup would become the equivalent of the League Cup in English soccer. It would only be open to the professional SL1, SL2 and NU clubs. The 1895 Cup would then be open only to Northern Union and amateur clubs. The purpose of both is clear: the Challenge Cup is inevitably dominated by the top flight professional clubs, so the biggest knockout competition is only open to the biggest clubs (the draw could also be engineered to ensure a NU or SL2 team makes the semis), which would have the dual benefit of reducing the number of rounds required. The 1895 Cup, recently introduced by the RFL to make the Challenge Cup final into a double header, can build its brand around being the competition open only to the “real” rugby league clubs, even though the final is likely to be still dominated by the top end of the Northern Union, at least the amateur clubs have a cost effective avenue for participation. You could swap the names on the competitions, it wouldn’t really matter.
The very long term plan would be ensuring new teams get added to Super League on a regular basis. As the future of rugby league is secured by its presence in big sporting markets, the number of Northern Union places in Super League could be increased to give greater heritage representation but one would hope that the gap between the Super League and Northern Union would grow to be so great over time, those clubs would simply not be able to compete and pro/rel would necessarily have to be eliminated. This should be considered a desirable outcome.
If NU clubs have the investment behind them, the demand is there and there is value to be added, then promoting a team can be decided in the board room, although I would expect it to be pretty rare that a NU could display that kind of value. The sport does not and is unlikely to ever have the resources required to support the flippancy of pro/rel. Super League simply cannot risk losing a big market team because they had a bad year, particularly considering the sunk investment and the total lack of value for big market teams in the second division, nor can it find the resources to ensure the gap between the first and second divisions remains bridgeable. It is already too great between Super League and the Championship and any actual growth is likely to exercebate it, rather than close it.
The barriers to this proposal are numerous. Clubs and fans aren’t going to want to be cut off from the top tier. Super League 2 is going to be expensive to run and very unlikely to attract a broadcast deal or much viewership. The Northern Union might actually be more popular than Super League, having more clubs in places where fans already exist, in which case, I don’t know if we can declare SL1 to be the top tier, especially if NU clubs can capitalise on this and out-spend the SL1 clubs. The Northern Union has been buried for a very long time and bringing back that brand now is extremely dubious. It’s not clear how squads can be managed shifting from a very low level SL2 to an elite SL1 without total disruption.
Still, the three leagues each would have a purpose and the framework would exist to offer Super League the opportunity to build itself into a position to compete as the complementary major league in Europe to the Asia-Pacific’s NRL.
The Football Bowl Subdivison is the top 130 or so college football teams in the US. Despite being the perfect candidate for a promotion and relegation setup, all the competing schools sit on ostensibly the same level. Almost all are divided into eleven conferences of differing sizes, which are broadly geographical and reflective of the status of the member schools, with some having regional divisions underneath. Notionally at least, all schools have a shot at the National Championship, although in reality, because of the somewhat subjective selection process for the final four teams, there is a limited subset of schools that are actually in the running, even before a game is played. For mine, the tension between the ridiculous structure of the sport, the ranking systems, the selection for the National Championship and the insane commitments to tradition and amateurism, makes college football interesting, even if the product is lacking.
One of rugby league’s strengths is its hyper-localisation. It elevates small places, that would otherwise have no right to be there, to the national stage in a way other sports can’t or won’t. While I am extremely dubious about this being a long term survival strategy, there’s no doubting this unique aspect of rugby league culture has value. Maintaining a local feel to the sport, compared to having well paid athletes flying all over the place, at least reduces the sport’s carbon footprint.
A hyper-local rugby leauge would look something like the college football landscape. Clubs would be divided into loosely defined conferences, with the winners qualifying to a round of play-offs to determine the champion. All 36 current RFL and SL clubs would be on the same level, spread across four conferences, each with a winner (or a winner and runner-up) qualifying for the post-season. There might even be some scope for clubs to set some of their own non-conference fixtures.
Players would be paid but to maintain some parity and prevent big places from having an advantage over small places, the commercial ceiling for clubs would have to be set very low, possibly so low that a floor is not needed. Rugby league will lose its talents to better paid opportunities elsewhere but that’s the price we would have to pay to maintain locality, especially if places like Palau and Featherstone are expected to be able to maintain competitive professional sports teams. If individual clubs’ cups run over, then they would be encouraged to set up distinct teams in other places. The alternative, to deregulate entirely, is a great way to ensure there are only half a dozen clubs are left standing.
The big advantage is then that it doesn’t cost a lot to set up a new rugby league team and there is a known ceiling on how much can be spent or lost. This should appeal to wealthy people who want to own a sports team but cannot afford a soccer, union or whatever franchise. There are numerous villages, suburbs and towns that could host a new team and with low costs, there’s plenty of time to build up a fanbase and take a long term view. It also offers the opportunity for alternative ownership models – especially fan and community owned – as the barrier to entry is much lower. Crucially, the new team enters at the top (only) level with an almost immediate shot at the title.
The other advantage is that its easy to facilitate expansion and easy to add leagues whole cloth. If, as perhaps should be the case, Elite One and Two were folded into the RFL system, we’d have fifty-four clubs that could be divied into five or six conferences. Think something along the lines of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northumbria, South England, Elite East and Elite West (or adopting the equivalent American-style names, e.g. “The Big Yorkie”) conferences. The winner of each would progress to the post-season, probably with an additional round for the runners-up to fight it out for the remaining slots.
New teams would have to provide very little evidence that they are sustainable, so would be able to go through a basic tick box exericse and find a conference to join. If it seems unimpressive now, this system could be expanded indefinitely, provided enough owners can be found, perhaps with two or three hundred clubs across Europe divided into twenty or thirty conferences and creating a monster round-of-32 post-season bracket. Big cities would simply house lots of clubs, as Sydney and London do now, and diffuse themselves across different conferences.
It’s difficult to see how that wouldn’t attract a mass audience eventually, albeit none of the individual clubs would have large followings and indeed, probably very small followings but with similarly small revenues, costs and debts. Soccer fans complain about money ruining the game and the divorce between the clubs and their communities. This structure is purpose-built to keep clubs small and close to their communities, while engaging with a larger geographical area because rugby league doesn’t have to choose to be bound by national borders, as soccer has chosen to do.
Under this regime, if kept, the Challenge Cup serves a new purpose to put teams in competition with teams they would not normally play against and perhaps this would be utilised in lieu of clubs setting their own fixture list. The 1895 Cup would serve no purpose, just as it does now, so can be put in the bin.
The champions of the European Rugby League conferences wouldn’t necessarily be able to compete with the champions of the NRL (assuming it maintains its current format), being far smaller and far less wealthy, but the competition as a whole might be able to generate interest just through its sheer scale.
The English game needs to make a decision about what it wants to be. Is it licencing or pro-rel? Alternating between the two suits no one but because there’s such a disparity between the top end of town and the rest, the system not in use looks more appealling than the one in use. This time it’ll be different. It’s this change that’ll resolve the unaddressed problems somehow but I don’t know how that can be if no one confronts what the problem is in the first place. My suggestions are that the dead weight is carved off into its competition to (mostly) let the rest of rugby league get on with it or that all clubs are cut to the same size and spec.
People will hate these suggestions and not just because its change but because they fundamentally disagree that this is how the sport should be configured. That’s fine, although if you cite tradition, I’ll just point out that is the peer pressure of dead people and I don’t care what they think. But the current system doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so why not try something new*?
*I also accept that there’s nothing really new under the sun. As reported by Rugby League Digest, pretty much every time I think I’ve come up with something clever, I found it was considered and discarded during the Super League war. I don’t think this reflects the merits of a given idea, given that no side seemed really interested in compromise, and the status quo looks great simply because we’ve doing it for a while.