IMG, the international sport and entertainment firm, has proposed removing the prospect of relegation from much of English rugby league’s top-tier Super League and has advocated for the centralizing of that competition’s commercial operations.
A joined-up calendar alongside international fixtures, the introduction of a new brand strategy, and the issuing of 'licenses' to clubs instead of promotion and relegation around the 12-team Super League are some of the other proposals IMG has made after what it has called the sport’s “most comprehensive consultation ever.”
IMG published the proposals yesterday (September 28), in the form of the Reimagining Rugby League Consultation Project, which has formed part of the first phase of the 12-year strategic partnership that the Rugby Football League (RFL) governing body and the Super League struck with the agency in May this year.
The agency said that the various proposals to the 37 clubs in the RFL structure have been made following consultation with stakeholders including clubs, broadcasters, sponsors, media, players, and international partners, as well as a supporters’ survey.
The centralization of operations, according to the proposals, would “maximize efficiencies and drive incremental revenue,” while the brand strategy would be introduced and aligned with the new commercial approach taken.
In terms of removing the option of relegation, this would be scrapped for ‘Category A’ Super League clubs under the IMG proposals, with the strategic partner having suggested that clubs’ place in the top league instead should be annually determined by whether they meet on and off-field criteria.
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Not all of the Super League clubs would automatically be allocated Category A status – some in the division would be given Category B status, meaning they would be eligible for relegation if they fall short of teams in that same ranking in the second-tier Championship.
Rugby league initially attempted licensing to make up the respective leagues in 2009 – a move that lasted until 2015.
In terms of repositioning the calendar, the aim is to optimize flow, narrative, and engagement, by including regular points where interest in the sport is expected to peak. Re-working the season’s finale is also considered an option.
Finally, IMG has proposed capping the number of overseas clubs able to compete in the Super League. In the 2022 campaign, two French sides joined the 10 English clubs.
May’s decision by the RFL and Super League to partner with IMG came after a move in March by those two bodies to realign (after splitting in September 2018), and create a joint company to take care of the sport’s commercial side.
These recommendations have been made public following the 2022 Super League Grand Final, the conclusion of this year's campaign that took place on September 24.
Simon Johnson, the Rugby Football League’s chair, said: “This is a significant day in terms of setting out a new path for the sport. We have prioritized transparency, in sharing these recommendations first with clubs and then with fans through the media. It is very much a direction of travel in these top-line recommendations, with significant layers of detail still to be worked through.”
Ken Davy, chair at Super League (Europe), added: “We would like to thank the clubs, broadcasters, commercial partners, and supporters that have contributed to IMG’s recommendations, which set out a new future for Rugby League and can take it in a bold and positive direction. At Super League, we look forward to the next stage of this comprehensive process, working towards providing further updates that will map out the sport’s long-term future.”
Matt Dwyer, a vice president at IMG, told BBC Sport, meanwhile: “This is a sport we look at and see a real growth trajectory …
“There’s a part of [the UK] where this is a very big sport and there’s another part of the country where it doesn’t make headlines – that’s a narrative we want to change …
“Referencing the removal of promotion and relegation, he said: “We’re at a point where we want to elevate the teams in the top tier to a standard where they are able to put on the best product they can to engage and excite the fans.”
He also said, on the subject of potential investment from outside sources: “If someone wants to invest there is an opportunity for them to protect and grow that investment.”
IMG has made the recommendations with “the overriding aim of driving the long-term value and impact of the sport.”
Clubs will be able to provide feedback on all IMG’s proposals at a meeting on October 13.
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