Peter Smith: RFL and Sky are at risk of alienating games’ fans

Jake Webster with Cas fans.
Jake Webster with Cas fans.
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ANY BUSINESS that ignores what its customers want is going to struggle.

If the local corner shop decides to operate opening hours suiting only itself, trade will soon go elsewhere.

The leisure industry is similar. In a crowded market punters will be quick to spend their money on other activities if they feel they are being taken for granted. Rugby league needs to pay more attention to the fans who buy season tickets and hand over cash at the turnstiles.

On July 27 fixtures for the First Utility Super-8s were published.

According to that list, Castleford Tigers should visit St Helens tomorrow night. Instead, at two weeks’ notice, the game has been moved forward 24 hours, at the request of Sky TV.

There has been a domino effect. Tigers’ management were naturally reluctant to play twice in five days, so their home game against Wakefield Trinity Wildcats – scheduled for last Sunday – was moved forward two days to the Friday.

Similarly, Wakefield’s home game against Hull has been chosen as next Thursday’s Sky game, so the visit of Catalans Dragons will be played tomorrow, rather than two days later, as originally planned.

Castleford and Wakefield are two of the few clubs who have stuck with Sunday as their regular home matchday. Fans purchase season passes on that basis and there will be some who are unable to attend Friday-night matches, despite having already paid for their ticket. They may think twice when it comes to renewal time.

Tigers’ supporters are also being asked to travel across the Pennines, for an 8pm kick-off, on a school night and Saints will therefore suffer, because the gate will inevitably be lower than for the original date.

Castleford chief executive Steve Gill and Wakefield chairman Michael Carter have both made it clear how unhappy they were at the revisions. Google “Super League fixture change” and various comments appear from different club chief executives, saying the same thing.

Under the terms of the sport’s broadcast deal, Sky have the right to move matches at relatively short notice. Sky is a big supporter of rugby league and pours a large amount of money into the sport. If you pay the piper, you call the tune.

That said, rearranging matches in the Super-8s creates an unnecessary problem. It was obvious when the fixtures were originally published which would be the big games and Sky could have saved a lot of bother by making their Thursday-night picks then.

Thursday-night rugby is a thorny issue anyway, having been imposed on the sport by Sky a few seasons ago, part-way through the year, after the broadcaster flirted with and then rejected Saturday evenings and Monday nights.

There was no consultation; it was a case of take it or leave it and many fans who regularly attend games chose the latter.

Both Castleford and Wakefield could have decided to stick with their Sunday afternoon game the week before their Thursday fixture, but that would put their team at a disadvantage against fresher opponents and there is a player-welfare issue, particularly at the end of a long season.

The RFL will not insist on any team backing up from Sunday to Thursday, so home teams, on occasions, have to move their own fixture to accommodate the wishes of the opposition.

Eventually, clubs will realise it is easier simply to schedule all their home fixtures for a Friday evening – though there could still be occasions when they have to move a game forward 24 hours.

When that happens fans who prefer Sunday afternoon rugby will take their custom elsewhere. It would be nice to think they might opt to follow a local Championship or League One club instead, but more realistically they will simply be lost to the game.

There were no Super League clubs in action last Sunday and the only middle-eights game was Featherstone Rovers’ trip to Batley Bulldogs.

For no good reason the sport risks antagonising its fans and clubs and losing vital media coverage and once they are gone it’s very hard to win them back.

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