Written by John Davidson
The Toronto Wolfpack are out, Leigh Centurions are back and there is hope that crowds will be allowed back in from March when the season starts.
But with only 12 months left of the current television deal, and with belt-tightening across the sport, we have to wonder what next for Super League?
What is the next goal, the next target, the next strategy for the UK’s elite competition? With a three-month hiatus, the time is right to look to the future.
And, right now, it looks anything but rosy. Yes, the clubs, coaches and players did a fantastic job to finish the 2020 season amidst so much change and uncertainty. It is a credit to them that they go to the finish line.
But for those on the sidelines, we have to wonder what will the future bring? Expansion in North America is clearly on the back-burner. Like Icarus, Toronto shone brightly briefly but ultimately flew too close to the sun, and crashed and burned. They are no more.
Tied to them is huge doubts over the future of Ottawa Aces. For 2021 Ottawa have deferred to participate, but many believe the second Canadian team will never play a game.
In this time of contraction and tightening of budgets we now have a comp with just one overseas team – Catalan Dragons – and none more south than Warrington and Salford. The current make-up sees the heartland areas and M62 corridor fully stacked.
This, of course, has its pros and cons but provides little room for growth.
At the same time of the market shrinking, and wider economic pain, we have the dawn of a new make-break-TV rights deal. According to several reports, Super League will receive much less than its current fee of £40 million per year going forward.
Change across the board is inevitable.
The split of Super League from the RFL has failed to have its desired affect. While it may have kicked Nigel Wood out of his entrenched position of power at Red Hall, it has not resulted in much more marketing exposure or a greater national profile for the top tier. Robert Elstone has not managed to get more people talking or interested in Super League.
With money to be tighter from the start of 2022, a radical revamp is needed. A complete split from full-time and part-time rugby league is necessary.
— Betfred Super League (@SuperLeague) December 27, 2020
Having full-time teams competing in the Championship makes little sense. But there are clubs in the second division with potential, with opportunity that needs to be nurtured.
Super League should go to 16 teams in 2022. With no relegation in 2021, this means four teams would come up.
Having a strong presence in the capital is vital for English rugby league. London Broncos should rejoin Super League.
York City Knights are building nicely and bring a lot to the table, especially in marketing value. They should get a chance in the elite division.
Toulouse also have potential and would help strengthen the French game, creating a derby with Catalans. They should be promoted.
Perhaps the most controversial choice would be the fourth club. The candidates include Newcastle, Bradford, Widnes and Featherstone. And while it would upset many the Bulls have the biggest brand of the four, and the largest fanbase, and so they should get the nod.
But merely promoting four clubs for one season would not be the solution. With them needs to come a franchising system that would guarantee their licenses for at least five years. Promotion and relegation would be paused. Each would get five years to grow their crowds, invest in their business, their academies and their entire operation, not just throw money at players in a mad scramble to avoid the drop..
And then at the end of that five-year period, in 2027, all licenses could be reviewed. If there is a strong contender then in the Championship at that stage that club could be brought into Super League.
At the same time League One should be scrapped and folded into the Championship. Instead of three divisions and 37 clubs, there could be a fully professional Super League of 16 clubs and a semi-professional Championship of 20 clubs, and that’s it. Some clubs in League One that don’t want to be involved could instead join the National Conference League.
Instead of a sea of mediocrity, we could funnel the best talent and top players into the elite division. Make Super League much more super than it is.
No longer would we have part-time players on £30,000 in the third tier, playing in front of 600 people, while at the same there are full-time players on £16,000 playing in front of 13,000 people. Wages in Super League should increase and a bigger potential audience hopefully created.
With 16 teams each club could play each other once home and away, making for an easier and simpler fixture list. No need for loop fixtures or a tedious finals system. Just a top eight system that rewards the highest finishers and the best of the best.
Tough times call for tough solutions. This revamp would leave many upset and angry. But the status quo isn’t working.
Change will happen, one way or another. Better to act now, while there is still time to act, than wait too long and there is no meat left on the bone.