Inside RL: Friday night fever could be freezing out Sundays – Smith

Castleford Tigers players salute their fans after their victory over Wigan last Friday.
Castleford Tigers players salute their fans after their victory over Wigan last Friday.
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Sunday super League might soon be a thing of the past.

The sport’s first Sunday fixtures, for professional teams, were played in December, 1967 and since then it has become the code’s chosen matchday.

One solution ... is to move all games to Friday evenings, guaranteeing a minimum of six days until the next match.

Leeds were one of the last clubs to stick with Saturday afternoon games, but moved to Sundays at the end of the 1970s. Never entirely happy with that, they chose Friday evenings as their preferred time for home games early in the summer era and since then several other clubs have followed suit.

Last Sunday featured only one Super League game – Warrington Wolves’ home meeting with Hull KR – and there will be only two this weekend: Hull KR v Catalans Dragons and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ trip to Salford Red Devils. Castleford Tigers are in Sky Sports-televised action at Huddersfield Giants tonight and there are three games tomorrow: Warrington v Leeds (which is the televised fixture), Widnes Vikings v St Helens and Wigan Warriors v Hull.

Castleford are among the clubs who have kept faith with Sunday afternoons, but are in a run of successive Friday evening home games. They played Wigan at the Jungle six days ago and will take on Salford there a week tomorrow, both fixtures having been shifted from their originally published date because of Thursday evening games.

Facing an important trip to Huddersfield tonight, Tigers moved last week’s game forward by two days to give themselves more time between matches.

After complaints about the strain of playing Sunday and then Thursday, the RFL have told clubs they will no longer be compelled to do that.

So Tigers were allowed to move the Wigan game forward, against the wishes of the visitors. The crowd of 7,772 was around 800 down on last year, but still above Cas’ 2014 season’s average.

And Salford, who play Widnes on March 26, asked for their match at Castleford, scheduled for four days earlier, also to be switched.

Now every club who still play on Sundays will have to be prepared to reschedule matches if their opponents have a Thursday game the following week.

Dates and times of games are changed on a regular basis. Sky, who have scheduled matches on every day of the week other than Tuesdays and Wednesdays at some time during their partnership with the RFL, are allowed to alter fixtures at a few weeks’ notice in order to televise them live.

There are consequences: changes often annoy supporters and inconvenience sponsors and corporate guests and can have an impact on gates.

Successful teams – or those involved in a relegation scrap – have to accept they are the ones the broadcaster will be most interested in, but now there is a risk of clubs having to reschedule even when they aren’t chosen by Sky.

One solution to that is to move all home games to Friday evenings, guaranteeing a minimum of six days until the next match.

That is not ideal, particularly for away fans who have to cross the M62 at one of the busiest times of the week.

Wigan fans were unhappy at that prospect last weekend, despite the fact their club play many of their home games on Fridays.

But it can be made to work, as Rhinos have proven. Friday nights are now rugby league nights in Leeds and the club have succeeded in making their home games an event as much as a sporting occasion.

Friday nights also produce corporate revenue. Business clients may enjoy visiting the rugby after work on Friday, but it’s harder to entice them to break into their leisure time on a Sunday afternoon.

Rugby league had the market pretty much to itself when it adopted Sunday afternoons half a century ago, but times have changed and there is more competition now.

It will be interesting to see what happens when Sky Sports begin broadcasting Premiership football on Friday evenings, but at the moment there’s a feeling in the game that it is the time to maximise gates and income, and at least one current Sunday-based side is pondering a permanent switch next year.

Castleford Tigers star Luke Gale hopes to make a sensational return against St Helens in Thursday's semi-final. (Picture: Matthew Merrick/RL Photos)

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