OPINION | Challenged Cup thinking by the RFL

With the imposition of a stipulation on Toronto, Toulouse, and Catalans that in order to take part in the Challenge Cup they provide a guarantee of one million pounds, either through ticket sales or cash equivalent, the RFL are abdicating their responsibility, and tacitly confessing that they are incapable of marketing the final game of the sport’s largest and most historic tournament.

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That the decision was made and announced at the 11th hour provides evidence that this august body lacks long-term planning skills and is making things up on an ad-hoc basis.  In this case, they have chosen to take what might have appeared to them to be the ‘easy’ way out, placing a financial burden on clubs that they assume will not draw many attendees should they reach the cup final, instead of admitting that the role of filling the stadium falls on the league itself, not the participating teams.

The financial shortfall of the 2018 Challenge Cup Final has been attributed by some to the participation of Catalans Dragons, surmising that they did not bring many supporters of their own, and that rugby league fans in the UK did not want to see a French team.  Yet the 2007 final involving Catalans drew 84,241, a full 19,000 more fans than the year before where two English clubs had played.  So perhaps that excuse isn’t valid after all, and is just lazy thinking, or is only one small part of the reason.

To both recoup the financial losses of 2018, and ensure the 2019 Challenge Cup will be profitable, the decision makers at RFL headquarters concluded that a financial guarantee of 20,000 tickets worth 50 pounds each, a completely arbitrary number, should do the trick.  Not redouble their efforts to make the 2019 final a must-see attraction, or decide to pull out all the stops and blanket the UK with intensive publicity and hype.   Hmmm.  More like RFL head-up-your-hindquarters.

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Note that this financial requirement was not placed upon these teams in 2017 or 2018, despite falling attendances at the final since 2015, including a precipitous drop from 76,235 in 2016 to 68,525 in 2017.  Did the RFL simply presume that attendances would return to the usual range, as happened immediately after the unusually low attendance in 2006?  Have they become lazy in their promotion of the final, preaching only to the already converted and not trying to reach new audiences?

Theoretically, amateur teams could make the final, including the university, Scottish, and Welsh champions.  Using the “logic” that some of these clubs might not have many supporters but could be in the title match, a million pound guarantee should follow.  But the very idea itself is beyond ludicrous.

Amateur clubs aside, which professional outfits can guarantee 20,000 supporters will travel to London?  A cursory look at attendances reveals that some in Super League are lucky to pull in 6,000 on a regular match day, and the highest attendance for six teams was, at most, only half of the required 20,000 demanded for the Challenge Cup by the RFL.

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So why make the demand of Toronto, Toulouse, and Catalans?  Well, they’re ‘foreigners’, so one would think the British public wouldn’t be up in arms about any special measures done to these outsiders.  Canadian and French fans are believed to be too far away to be any bother, unlikely to picket or protest, and it doesn’t matter that there are plenty of people in the UK who actually support them.  Additionally, in the case of Toronto and Toulouse, the teams themselves aren’t even voting members of the RFL and thus have no say in the decision.  Sort of like taxation without representation, to borrow a historical concept from our American neighbours.

Another simple explanation is that the RFL may have felt Toronto, especially, have deep pockets, and would be willing to guarantee this amount in order to curry favour, or for the privilege of taking part in the tournament.  After all, as non-voting members they appear to not be automatically included and must be invited.  Paying an expansion fee, funding the flights and accommodations of visiting clubs for three years now, foregoing home games and that concomitant revenue, as well as bringing an international airline and diamond company as sponsors was simply not enough, and the RFL chose to go to the same well again.

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And one can easily predict the complaints if Toronto put up the bond then actually went and won the Challenge Cup.  It would be claimed that the RFL rigged the competition to allow them to win in order to keep the money, such that the Cup was bought, the entire sport was corrupt, and they were in the pocket of the Wolfpack.  We’re heard idiotic conspiracy theories like these for two seasons now.

It’s also ironic that some who have been vociferously opposed to non-British clubs being in the RFL structure are now mad that these teams are not going to be in this particular competition.  Angry they’re in.  Angry they’re not in.  It’s either a case of cognitive dissonance, or merely being opposed to anything Canadian and French teams do.  Even if only subconsciously.

The parochial attitudes, limited problem-solving abilities, and unexplained decisions of the RFL powers-that-be do not inspire confidence.  Quite the opposite.  In a very short period of time I have become somewhat passionate in my support for one particular team, but more importantly rugby league as a whole.  My desire is for every club to do well economically, and for the geographic footprint of the sport to grow.  Potential investors, owners, advertisers, and broadcasters will not be lining up to hand over their money to the RFL, or knocking down their door demanding to be allowed to place a team in a new location.

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The RFL could unfairly make things easy for teams like Toronto, do their best to compromise in order to make it as fair as possible, or actively try to make it difficult.  They are currently doing the latter, like a toxic partner placing more and more unreasonable demands on a suitor in order for them to prove their love, and show that they are worthy.

I want to be positive about rugby league, as I’ve met so many fantastic people and see such potential, but it’s so hard when the sport seems hell-bent on turning new people away.

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