This weekend sees the return of the Magic Weekend, one of the most successful innovations of our sport in the last 20 years.
This will be the 12th edition since the first event at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, and the fourth in a row to go to St James’ Park in Newcastle.
From the start, the purpose of Magic Weekend has been to attract publicity and interest in rugby league in areas outside the heartlands that have been so notoriously difficult to break away from.
Cardiff’s spectacular stadium was the first choice, with the RFL looking to build on sell-out crowds in three Challenge Cup finals at the ground. It was also intended to test the ground for a potential Super League franchise in Wales, but the Crusaders lasted just three seasons before being disbanded in 2012.
After Cardiff, the show moved north to Edinburgh and Murrayfield, but there appeared to be no plan for the sport in Scotland and the event itself suffered its worst attendance in 2010.
After a year back in Cardiff the event moved to Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, before going up to the north east to its current home. Attendances have reached new heights but in neither city has rugby league made any significant development since, so it seems to be the right time to re-evaluate what we want to do with Magic.
Is the purpose simply to create a spectacle over the two days? If so, having more than 20,000 empty seats again surely isn’t the way to do that, which is enough reason in itself to now try elsewhere.
Or should the event be generating interest in the sport in new areas and trying to grow our game out of those stubborn boundaries?
Here are five ideas for where we could go next…
Liverpool – Anfield has been willing to host rugby league events, with the Four Nations final in 2016 and one of this autumn’s England tests against New Zealand coming up. Liverpool is right on the doorstep of the heartlands, although with a capacity slightly larger than St James’ it would be a tough task to fill.
Sheffield – If the RFL want a sell-out spectacle than hosting close to home is always an option. If Elland Road isn’t adventurous enough, taking the show to either major ground in Sheffield could be an opportunity to grow the game in a huge location and bring significant local interest back to the Eagles after their recent return to the city.
London – The capital already hosts the Challenge Cup final, and there are no shortage of grounds to play at. Taking Magic Weekend to somewhere like the London Stadium should, marketed properly, create a lot of excitement, and would get significant coverage from a London-centric national media, although there is the worry that such a venue would only be half full.
Bristol – It may be a left-field idea, but if we are looking to bring new teams into the professional leagues then we need to be generating interest in the sport there beforehand. Hosting Magic in Bristol before introducing a team into League 1 would give them a better chance of building a fanbase in a city that already has three well-supported sports teams, and we know the council has an interest in bringing rugby league to the city from their 2013 World Cup match and their bid for 2021 games. This could be a model to follow when looking to create more expansion clubs.
North America – Admittedly this would be highly unlikely. But if the financial backers behind Toronto or potential new franchises such as New York decide they want to showcase our sport to their audience, what better way than to bring Magic Weekend across the pond? Or could this season’s foray into Australia lead to a whole round of fixtures going down under?