Super League XVIII is set to be a seminal season for rugby league. Ian Doyle reports...
WHEN, earlier this month, Rugby Football League chief executive Nigel Wood claimed this year will be the ‘most important’ since the advent of summer rugby in 1996, he couldn’t have expected his words to be quite so prophetic.
As Super League prepares to start another thunderous campaign this week, all signs point to the game being at a crossroads.
Wood was making reference to the Rugby League World Cup, which will be held on these shores at the end of the year. But whether all 14 Super League clubs make it that far is open to debate, according to a sports finance specialist who claims they are on the edge of a financial abyss.
Rob Wilson, from Sheffield Hallam University, reached the conclusion after analysing the available balance sheets of 11 Super League teams.
“You have three or four teams that are doing very well, three or four teams doing poorly and a group of teams that struggle to wash their face financially,” says Wilson. “The overall effect of that is that League itself will struggle for finance.
“The biggest challenge for the Super League is that there are too many teams generating insufficient turnover and generating too much cumulative debt.
“And that alarms me as someone who looks at finance in an academic environment, so using a term like ‘rugby league is staring at the financial abyss’ isn’t too harsh a thing to say.”
Bradford Bulls, one of the major players of the early Super League era, almost went to the wall last summer while Salford City Reds continue to teeter on the brink.
Part of the problem has been the demand to move with the times. More than half of the 14 clubs have either moved into new stadiums or extensively renovated current facilities during the past 15 years, with Salford’s problems exacerbated by such a switch last year.
Castleford Tigers’ plans for a similar move were scrapped in November when their precarious financial flight became apparent. Neighbours Wakefield, however, press on with their intended development.
The RFL issued a strong rebuttal of Wilson’s claims, with director of standards and licensing Blake Solly insisting the game remains in ‘robust health’.
The governing body would point to the fact Super League clubs are guaranteed an income stream in excess of £90m from the Sky television deal.
Rugby league has been more proactive than most sports – yes, we’re talking about you, football – in attempting to reign in finances. But much more work needs to be done. Indeed, the new season starts without a major sponsor after clubs voted to end the controversial and unpopular sponsorship with Stobart just one year into a three-year deal.
Our three local sides are among those on a firmer financial footing than most, although each has had their own brush with money problems.
St Helens finally moved into a long-mooted new stadium last year after more than a decade of waiting, and club captain Jon Wilkin admits the impressive 18,000-seater Langtree Park facility may well have saved the club from oblivion.
“If we had stayed at Knowsley Road, it wouldn't exist in a number of years' time,” says Wilkin. “That's the simple fact. The club would have financially died a death. Moving to Langtree Park had to be done.
“Everybody who has invested in the club, not just the current board but in the years gone by, really deserves the credit for taking such a tough decision but to take the club into the future and make the club a profitable business.
“Ultimately, if it's not making money, the club we all love – I love to play for, the fans love to support – would not exist.”
Widnes Vikings went into administration in 2007 but have since been transformed by the finances of local businessman Steve O’Connor and, with their former Naughton Park home having already been redeveloped, they were well placed to be readmitted into the Super League last year.
And backed by concert promoter Simon Moran, who helped bankroll the 2003 move to the Halliwell Jones Stadium, Warrington Wolves have proven one of the success stories in recent years. Coach Tony Smith admits clubs would be wise to act on the warnings of the report.
“It hurts to see the game going through difficult times but sometimes we need shake-ups and reality checks,” he said. “Sometimes we need to make some hard decisions to make things better.
“Hopefully we've the people in charge to do those things.”
Smith’s final comment points at the long-established tension between the RFL and the clubs, each pointing the finger at the other as regards the financial problems facing the sport.
Solly said: “The salary cap and licensing have both brought the stability that is allowing many clubs to operate profitably and helped attract the new investors who coming into Super League.
“However, no amount of central legislation can guard against some of the decision-making at local level.”
Gary Hetherington, chief executive of champions Leeds Rhinos, has some sympathy with this view. “The majority of clubs are working hard,” he said. “It’s some of the others that have let the sport down quite frankly.”
Solly adds: “Compared to every other major sport, rugby league is in very robust health: attendances were at an all-time high in 2012, more people saw the game on television than ever before and the RFL was able to make record levels of financial disbursements to clubs.
“We expect standards in Super League to continue to rise in 2013 when a more geographically diverse Championship will showcase the sport to new audiences whilst the Rugby League World Cup will elevate rugby league’s profile to new heights.
“2013 will also see more commercial income flow into rugby league than at any time in its history.”
Wood says: “We continue to work with clubs in what – as everyone knows – is a difficult economic climate, to build for the long-term future of the game.”
That uneasy relationship between the authorities and the Super League club could prove decisive. Certainly, it will take more than a clever promotional clip starring Bradley Wiggins to eradicate the problems that threaten the sport.