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Nurturing our game

Phil Clarke Posted 6th March 2013 view comments

It might be a World Cup year, but I really want to discuss the World Club Challenge where club teams and not countries are competing at the highest level that rugby league has to offer.

If the rumours are correct, the leading sides in Super League want to find a way of making this event even bigger and better than we saw at Headingley two weeks ago. Most professional sports want to have a global audience and the days of a local derby between two teams and supporters separated by a short distance are fading into a nostalgic memory. Or so we are led to believe.

Are fans interested in an expanded World Club Challenge?

Are fans interested in an expanded World Club Challenge?

I have repeatedly stated my respect and admiration for the things that Gary Hetherington has achieved in rugby league and I applaud his efforts to discuss ways in which the sport can grow this event. Hetherington's idea is that the three top clubs from Super League take on their counterparts from the NRL. That means that third place will take on third place and second will play second. But I just can't see how we can make it anything more than first against first - the winners of the Super League against the champions from the NRL.

Losing interest?

Let's look at the facts. Leeds sold out the game at Headingley and could probably have sold a few thousand more tickets, but not the 37,000 plus that they did when they played at Elland Road in 2005 or the 33,204 that saw them play against the Storm in 2008.

Sadly we don't appear to have a strategic plan that co-ordinates with the international game. How do the clubs and the countries that play rugby league develop in harmony? Who pays for this?

Phil Clarke
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Two years ago Wigan entertained the St George Illawarra Dragons at the DW Stadium and were unable to sell out the 25,000 seater stadium and yet drew almost 37,000 people back in 1987. If Warrington were to win the Grand Final this year, how many supporters would they manage to get next year? Would they have the confidence and demand to take it to a larger football stadium, say Anfield, or stay at home and limit the crowd to less than 15,000? What makes us think that there is significant interest from the public? Is there much interest to sponsor the event?

A look at the crowds for the World Club Challenge over the years suggests that the appetite of the paying public is less than it was in the late 80's and 90's. Both Wigan and Widnes drew bigger crowds back then than we see today. Is that the reason why we need to change? Is it losing its appeal? Most businesses and events expand when they can't grow further, I don't sense that we're quite there yet.

A general observation of events like the Heineken Cup in rugby union and the Champions League in football suggests that people like to see international club competitions, but they don't all work. I can't claim to follow football that closely, but I don't sense much interest in the FIFA Club World Cup, between the champion clubs from six continental competitions and the league winners from the host nation. The most recent final saw Chelsea lose to Corinthians from Brazil, but it didn't feel like a big deal in the football world.

I've spent ten days trying to imagine how an expanded WCC tournament could work and have failed to come up with anything. What's the purpose of a game between our second and third best and theirs?


To widen my view I thought I would ask the opinion of the highly-respected Frank Ponissi. He's the General Manager of Football (read rugby league) for the Melbourne Storm. He's been an important member of the club for several years and has also lived and worked in the UK when he spent time helping the Northampton Saints to be successful in rugby union. He's a bit like me in that he struggles to see how players could take it seriously. What's their motivation? Well, as professional sportsmen you could say money, they get paid to play and entertain, but there is a limit to the number of games and amount of travel. Would the numbers stack up to make it worthwhile by the time that one team have flown half way around the world? I don't think so. Another local derby game might produce a bigger crowd for most teams that weren't playing for the WCC prize.

Frank is an expansionist, and wants to find a way to make the event grow. His players loved the unique atmosphere at Leeds and have even learned the words to some of the songs sung by the Rhinos supporters. But neither of us can buy into the current plan that's being suggested.

This then leads us on to the topic of expansion. The NFL has spent millions over the last 20 years trying to grow their game in Europe. They have games at Wembley a couple of times a year for competition points, not just exhibition games which don't seem to work and the crowds always look impressive, but what's the longer term plan?

The NBA have also announced that they will play some of their preseason games in October, with stops in Manchester, Manila, Philippines, Taipei, Taiwan, Beijing and in Shanghai. Apparently, nearly a third of the NBA teams will embark on a global tour to strengthen their ties with their international fans and bring new ones to the NBA.

Rugby union appears to have used the IRB Sevens tournament as an advertising and marketing initiative for 15-a-side rugby. It's almost a different game to the real thing but it has helped to spread their sport. Inclusion in the 2016 Olympic games is perhaps proof of that.

Growing our game

So how do we grow our game and make the World Club Challenge a 'must see' event?

For some years now people have looked at taking this match to a new place. Russell Crowe suggested Las Vegas, others Hong Kong, and one or two have had a look around the Middle East to find a suitable venue and significant interest. But nobody has been able to pull this off.

Sadly we don't appear to have a strategic plan that co-ordinates with the international game. How do the clubs and the countries that play rugby league develop in harmony? Who pays for this?

It's almost 20 years since I was lucky enough to play in Brisbane in front of over 50,000 people. It was the only time that a British team have won over there and really the only time it's happened. (St Helens did lose in an unofficial WCC in 1976).

We have a history of failure when trying to develop and expand rugby league and in my opinion an expanded WCC would be another. We need to be attracting 50,000 plus to the match before we widen the competition.

Let's put more effort into playing it at Wembley in front of a full house, with our best against their best. Create an atmosphere that encourages people to buy their tickets 12 months in advance and use one of the world's best cities with a world famous stadium to make a world class event.

Comments (10)

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Alan Whitfield says...

A good honest article Phil. You miss the vital thing cost. Lets see a drop in you pay more for the best seats which is a rip off. Level the cost out say £25 across the board as its a bigger game. Then see the crowds pulled in.

Posted 12:24 12th March 2013

Chris Harper says...

I agree with your reservations. At the moment we get between 50,000 and 70,000 people willing to turn out to watch our elite comp every week. Not sure of the championship gates but it's not many. How can we hope to then get ALL of them to travel maybe 150/200 miles to watch a match that will be televised and is it seems of much less interest than their club's games? I think we have to start off with an easier target. We have to create habit with RL supporters. We need almost a 3 line whip for 1 day a year where the whole of RL has a party with a game at it's heart. The magic weekend is along the right lines but it hasn't really captured the imagination of anyone outside of that hard core 50,000 fans. RU have nurtured a different approach. On their "party" days for big games every rugby club in the UK will run trips. So you'll get massive numbers of amateur , semi pro and pro players , their families , friends and supporters all turning up for the day out or the weekend. We've done it for the Challenge Cup Final to an extent but that's in danger of fading. Maybe we can't support two competitions? Do we try to replace the CC with the WCC? We need that showcase where the event is oversubscribed , in a big stadium and just cannot be ignored by the media. The RFL needs to help to not only organise the event but also the clubs , amateur and pro , and to subsidise it to make sure people are there. Whether that's cheaper travel , accommodation , tickets etc or financial incentives that reward those clubs that get x number of their members there. Until we can be certain that we can get significant numbers of people to major games and events we'd be committing suicide if we set up a WCC game , made a big noise about it and ended up with 20 or 30,000 in a 80,000 capacity stadium. Closer to home , what are "Match Facts" all about on the Sky website? Teams in the wrong order , incomplete and a waste of time! Regards

Posted 09:48 10th March 2013

Mark Seabrook says...

I have always thought RL has great potential in the states most Americans think NFL is the greatest, not because it is but because its all they know. When yanks watch a SL or NRL game they are blown away by how tough and fast RL is. Maybe some games in the US but with decent PR. Of course another hurdle is that the few American who know about rugby don't realise RL is not union......

Posted 20:16 9th March 2013

Dujon Vilisoni says...

I have asked everyone around here in NZ as well as good friends in Aussie, and we've come up with the same conclusion - that WCC expansion is stupid! NOBODY cares about an expanded WCC over here, let alone the names of the other Super League teams involved. No one here sees how any Super League side is meant to be competitive in any scale when considering the huge differences in salary cap and squad depth between the two competitions. With us knowing the Super League salary cap is atleast 1/6th the size of the NRL's, all of us here have NO expectation whatsoever that an expanded WCC would even pose any serious thought other than as a warm up match for pre-season

Posted 12:33 9th March 2013

David Lea says...

Before we have any thoughts of expanding the wwc why cant we focus on our games exposure. Premior Sports have announced a 5 year deal with the NRL for all NRL matches (5 live a week) the Anzac test, Grand Final and the State of Origin series, also the championship games and what do we have? 2 games a week Friday which is normally good then Saturday which is normally at let down. Yes we have a magic weekend but that is once a year hardly 5 games every week. i hardly see any advertisement for league on sky yet alone anywhere else so lets sort our game out first before we try expanding.

Posted 16:46 7th March 2013

Richard K says...

Phil, Your article raises more questions than it answers, and I don't see how you can conclude that the WCC would not be good for RL based on the arguments you present. - Just because crowds at the WCC have been falling doesn't necessarily mean people are losing interest; is this more indicative of the general decline of rugby league over the years? - By including more than one team from each country, we might increase interest in this side of the game and draw in larger crowds. - Comparing RL to other sports is ill advised at the best of times; why then have you compared it to RU seven's and stated that this helped general RU - where is the evidence? - You explain that you played in Brisbane in front of 50,000 during the only time a British team has won over there - surely if we play more games against the NRL teams our game will improve and we will turn the tide on this statistic - is that not motivation enough? - I agree that the WCC could be played at Wembley / Old Trafford when in the UK to raise it's profile. A 'magic weekend' style competition might work, where over two/three weekends teams play each other. - I have my own reservations about moving the WCC to countries outside UK and Aus - how are people supposed to afford these trips during difficult financial times? Perhaps this might be an idea for the future, but for now I would think that establishing this competition in Aus and the UK would be sufficient. In truth, these are only a few comments and my conclusion is that whilst the RFL may have not found many workable / successful options to develop this sport they are at least looking into avenues that have merit and should not be dismissed out of hand without relevant empirical evidence to substantiate the arguments.

Posted 15:23 7th March 2013

Martin Aspey says...

I can't see the point in 3rd vs 3rd. There is no motivation for the team or the fans. Why not have Grand Final Winner and Challenge Cup Winner play off against the two Aussie Grand finalists? The winners of the two games play in the final to be crowned World Champion. Motivation for all teams and all fans.

Posted 12:07 7th March 2013

Steve Mellors says...

I like Philip Hill's idea of three games all in one day, at say Wembley. Imagine Wigan V Rabbitohs, Leeds V Melbourne and Warrington V Roosters all in one day. It would be a massive high profile event that could rival the Heineken Cup in prestige and be Rugby League's jewel in the crown, if marketed right. Maybe it could be played in Britain and Oz alternately, although I'd love a trip to Dubai or Boston to watch it.

Posted 11:54 7th March 2013

Philip Hill says...

My thoughts on expanding the world club challenge would be the top three play off like suggested. But all on the same day in the same stadium, this kind of event is perfect for a magic Saturday. It would be encourage supporters to watch other teams and not just there own.

Posted 17:38 6th March 2013

Dom Varley says...

Get a fixture or two played in Dubai. There are plenty of RL fans in the Emirate that would fill the same stadium that the sevens are played at. We get all SL and NRL fixtures out here on the TV but no live games.

Posted 13:31 6th March 2013

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