THERE IS life outside Betfred Super League, but it is becoming increasingly precarious.
Clubs in Betfred League One, the lowest level of the Rugby Football League’s structure, live a hand to mouth existence at the best of times, but there is real doubt over whether some of them will be competing at semi-professional level in the near future.
Deregulation of League One – effectively making it amateur – was discussed at a recent meeting of lower division clubs. Nothing has been agreed, but the competition does seem to be increasingly remote from the rest of the sport in this country.
The big shock in last weekend’s Ladbrokes Challenge Cup third round was that there were no ‘surprises’. All six of the League One clubs facing opposition from the amateur game won their tie, most of them quite comfortably.
But attendance figures last weekend illustrated what they are up against. Of the 13 ties only one attracted a four-figure gate, 1,505 turning up at Odsal to see Bradford Bulls – Cup winners as recently as 2003 – hammer West Wales Raiders 82-6.
The next-best was at Hunslet, where 896 watched the Leeds derby against Oulton Raiders. The other six League One clubs with home advantage attracted just 1,854 between them, an average of 309 each. It is difficult to run a semi-professional clubs on gates that low.
The amateur game has its own problems at the moment. Though competitions like the Yorkshire Men’s League are thriving, the switch to a summer season has hit some sides in the National Conference badly and even long-established and successful clubs have at times struggled to raise a team.
But, though none of them won last weekend, in terms of facilities and playing standards the gap between the semi-professional and community games has narrowed considerably in recent years. Clubs like Hemel Stags, Coventry Bears and West Wales would – and this is understandable given their circumstances – struggle to dominate in the National Conference Premier Division, while Hunslet Club Parkside proved they can give League One opposition a run for their money by losing only 24-16 to a relatively star-studded Workington Town side last weekend.
League One is a hard-fought competition, but – apart from a deal to stream Bradford’s matches – has no television coverage. Even a handful of games a year would boost clubs’ prospects of attracting sponsorship and advertising. This year games from the National Conference will be broadcast on the Freesports channel, so again the part-time competition is lagging behind.
As a cost-cutting measure, the RFL have decided match commissioners – usually retired referees who ensure everything is in order on match days – will no longer be appointed to League One games.
The competition is, effectively, becoming increasingly amateur in the way it is run.
Clubs like Bradford, Hunslet, York – though all have been relaunched at some stage – and Keighley have a long and proud history and their supporters have as much passion as anyone who watches Leeds Rhinos or Castleford Tigers.
It is possible to make League One rugby attractive to fans, as York proved when 4,221 watched their opener against Bradford at Bootham Crescent a couple of weeks ago. But there is not enough money being generated at that level and that situation will get considerably worse if League One clubs lose their share of the Sky TV cash. Top-flight outfits are increasingly reluctant to part with even relatively small sums to prop up sides at the bottom of the ladder, but without their £75,000 handout many of the semi-professional clubs – who face more travelling than Super League teams – would struggle to survive.
Sports marketing guru Eddie Hearn met with RFL interim chief executive Ralph Rimmer this week. This column has previously suggested giving Hearn’s Matchroom organisation an event – for example Magic Weekend or the Challenge Cup – to run, to test the waters. It’s highly doubtful they’d be interested, but if they really are up for a challenge why not let them take over League One? If they could turn that around, then it would be difficult to argue against them taking a major role in running the sport as a whole.