Written by John Davidson
With the hunt on for a 12th team to enter Super League in 2020, the competition is at a turning point.
With Toronto Wolfpack turfed out, do they look for another ambitious expansion project? Or do they return to the tried and tested M62?
A club that neatly covers both divides, and may present a comfortable compromise, is the York City Knights.
Of course, rugby league in York is not new. The 13-man code has been played since the sports’ birth in 1895, with the York Wasps. So in that way, rugby league has history in this old city.
The city itself is fabulous, one of the most enticing locales in all of the UK. In 2018 it welcomed 6.9 million visitors, who spent nearly £600 million. That’s big bickies. York is an attractive destination for away fans, and a place that tourists both foreign and domestic want to experience.
Helping the Knights’ case is their brand-new stadium. The LNER Community Stadium, with an all-seater capacity of 8,005, is set to open early next year. A modern, state of the art facility would be a rarity in Super League.
The stadium will host the New Zealand national team at the World Cup next year. It also will be the venue for three double-headers in the Women’s World Cup, and the setting for the semi-finals too. If it’s good enough for the international game, surely it’s good for Super League?
The Knights have a fantastic city and stadium to draw on, and a talented young coach. James Ford has done a great job with the club during his five years at helm. He got them promoted out of League 1 in 2018, ahead of Bradford. Last year he led them to third place in the Championship with a small budget and limited resources.
— York City Knights⚔️ (@YorkKnightsRLFC) December 6, 2020
Ford, and the club itself, are on the rise after an ownership change foyr years ago.
York has to be one of the biggest cities in England without a major football club on its doorstep to compete with. York City compete in the National League North, the sixth tier of English soccer, and their average attendance is 2,705. It is nothing like Leeds Rhinos competing with Leeds United or Bradford Bulls competing with Bradford City.
There is not another significant professional sporting club in the city in rugby union, basketball or ice hockey.
York City Knight’s average attendance last year was 2,125. While that was not as big as Bradford, Leigh, Toulouse or Featherstone, it is comparable with London’s. And with the addition of coming into Super League, which the club has never been involved in before, you would bank on those figures growing in 2021.
Marketing-wise, York have a strong track record of promotion and gaining attention, a vital ingredient. Whoever comes into the top division needs to be able to engage with the media and get publicity.
The Knights’ marketing has been slick and professional. Out of the six clubs vying for that spot, they have the fourth-most followers on Twitter.
They are also producing their own players. Kris Brining had a spell at Salford, and is now back at York, while Greg Minkin is on the books of Hull KR. They helped James Batchelor learn his trade before joining St Helens.
In terms of their current playing roster, the Knights are weaker than the likes of the Centurions or Toulouse. But they will have some time to recruit if they get the nod and additional funding.
And they have already made some veteran signings in the form of Adam Cuthbertson, Danny Kirmond and Ryan Atkins. You add in the likes of Jimmy Keinhorst, Danny Washbrook, Chris Green, Chris Clarkson and Jordan Baldwison, and that is a solid squad with experience.
If image and profile is Super League’s worry, and expansion is their concern, then York may just fit the bill.
London has that mega city allure and Toulouse some Gallic flair, but ‘Heartland Expansion’ in northern Yorkshire might be the perfect tonic.