TV or not TV, that is the question.
In Castleford Tigers’ case the answer is usually in the affirmative. Last Friday’s home clash with Huddersfield Giants was the first Tigers game not covered live on Sky Sports since March.
That was a run of 10 consecutive televised Betfred Super League fixtures, plus one in the Coral Challenge Cup. Tigers are a good team to watch and their games are rarely dull, but 11 successive matches?
After being shunned by the cameras six days ago, when – ironically – they were involved in a thriller which went into golden-point extra-time, Tigers will be back in the spotlight tonight as they take on Hull FC for the third occasion on Sky this season.
Castleford’s home game against Leeds Rhinos, traditionally their biggest gate of the campaign, has been brought forward two days to Friday, July 5, at Sky’s request.
The broadcaster also televised the two previous meetings between those sides this year, the most recent being on May 16.
Remarkably, Tigers haven’t had a home Sunday afternoon game since their win over Salford Red Devils on March 17.
Castleford have three home Sunday dates scheduled for the rest of the regular season, but any of those could be rearranged for television coverage.
So, at best, Tigers will end this year having played just four of their 14 home games on a Sunday afternoon.
Castleford are one of the few clubs, Wakefield Trinity being another, who still prefer a Sunday matchday and weekend games are becoming a rarity.
Last Saturday and Sunday there were two – Trinity’s derby with Rhinos being shifted to the Friday – and Salford against Wakefield is the only Sunday fixture this week.
The drift away from Sunday games has an effect on coverage in the written media, though a relationship with the Press is something the game itself is increasingly turning its back on. More importantly, it makes it harder for fans to attend matches. Motorway travel on a Thursday or Friday evening is slow at best and even home fixtures can be a rush for supporters after work. Plus, Thursday is a school night which doubtless deters some families.
Though they are aware of the possibility of matches being rearranged, fans of clubs like Castleford and Wakefield buy their season tickets on the basis most home games will be staged on a Sunday afternoon.
The uncertainty will inevitably deter some fans when they are debating whether to make that commitment.
Rugby league is by no means the only sport affected – Leeds United supporters have suffered from Sky’s tinkering with fixture lists for years – but that doesn’t make it right.
Sport is unique in that no other industry treats its customers with such a cavalier attitude. Supermarkets don’t shut at the times most shoppers want to buy their groceries and they would very quickly lose business if they did.
Clearly, Sky want people to watch games from the comfort of their armchair, but matches played in sparsely-populated stadiums make for poor viewing.
Sky also influence matchdays indirectly. Other than at Easter when it suddenly becomes acceptable, clubs aren’t expected to play twice in five days.
So if a club has a Sunday afternoon fixture and either they or their opponents are due to play the following Thursday, the game will almost inevitably be brought forward a day or two.
There is a way of eliminating most of the uncertainty, which is by switching scheduled home fixtures from Sundays to Fridays.
That was pioneered by Leeds – who in pre-Super League days were the last club to play games on Saturdays rather than the following afternoon – and the majority of their rivals have followed suit.
Inevitably, at some stage the remaining Sunday clubs will chuck in the towel and join the Friday club. That will be a shame for those sides and their supporters and for Super League. The only positive, when the elite competition becomes Thursdays and Fridays only, is that will open a real opportunity for the Betfred Championship, which is an equally enthralling competition.