Monday, May 06, 2013

Life's Ups and Downs

The debate has started again in rugby league circles about the merits of automatic promotion and relegation to Super League. The end to the football season, with all its last minute drama, delight and despair has no doubt stirred its believers into action.

There is no debate that do-or-die games, with something hinging on the outcome for both sides, create drama and draw crowds. The last one I can remember of the pre-franchise era in rugby league pitched local neighbours Wakefield and Castleford against each other, in a winner-takes-all showdown full of excitement in front of a large attendance.

There's one significant difference in the outcomes of promotion and relegation between rugby league and many other professional sports however, which presents a fly in the ointment to the automatic P&R brigade.

In football, if a team is relegated from the Premier League it drops down to the Championship. Clubs in the Championship are run in much the same way. They receive substantial - albeit smaller - television revenues. All their staff, both on field and off, are still full time and well paid. The rules don't differ in terms of how much they can spend on wages or how many overseas players they have.

The relegated or promoted clubs can essentially carry on doing business in the same way they had in the previous season. None of this applies to rugby league.

Revenues in the Championship are tiny in comparison to Super League. In most cases well below the level that is needed to fund a full time squad. Hence the reason that most of the teams at that level are part time. So any club that comes down from Super League finds itself having to make major changes on and off the field in the way it is structured.

Similarly, any club stepping up from the Championship to Super League needs to find the investment to recruit a large number of new players, revamp its marketing and commercial side and make the transition from a part time to a full time competition. Assuming they don't get to know that they are promoted until October and that the season starts again in February, that means four months to entirely change the nature of their business.

The current franchising system is not perfect. It will not provide a cure to the kind of poor, short-term management that plagues many clubs both inside and outside Super League. That's an issue that those responsible for running the clubs need to get their heads around.

What it will do however - and has already done - is encourage outside investment into clubs from owners who can be sure that for the next three years their major income streams are guaranteed. It will also ensure that they can invest in their infrastructure - stadiums, youth structures, marketing - safe in the knowledge that doing so will increase their chances of staying in Super League and not be jeopardised by a sudden slump in playing form.

On-field competition in sport is its lifeblood. It's the reason it exists. Yet despite that, sport is also a business. If it neglects the solid structures it needs to survive, what happens on the field becomes the least of its worries.

For rugby league clubs to survive, they need that solidity and certainty - not the knife edge existence that promotion and relegation brings.

No comments: