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Grading criteria, overseas expansion and a digital overhaul… Inside IMG’s radical plan to reimagine rugby’s Super League

England’s Rugby Football League and the top-flight Super League have partnered with agency giant IMG to transform the domestic game and help it reach new audiences beyond its northern heartland. After seeing their initial proposals approved by the clubs, SportsPro outlines the plans, looks at how they’ve been received, and speaks to the key figures involved.

12 May 2023 Ed Dixon

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Rugby league in England is renowned for its passionate fanbase in the north and large crowds for the Super League grand final. Embracing change, though, is not something that has come naturally to the sport and its administrators.

A number of issues have limited rugby league’s appeal, including only four teams winning the top-tier Super League since 1996. A failure to expand the sport’s reach beyond its heartland along the M62 has also been detrimental to growth. It has stirred the Rugby Football League (RFL) governing body and Super League to take drastic action.

In May 2022, New York-headquartered agency giant IMG agreed a 12-year strategic partnership with Super League Europe and the RFL to restructure and reimagine the game. Since then, the trio have engaged in consultation with stakeholders across the sport, ranging from clubs and broadcasters to sponsors and players, as well as conducting a survey of supporters that drew almost 20,000 responses.

IMG has also presented seven recommendations, all with the overriding aim of driving long-term value and impact for rugby league. Among the proposals are a repositioned calendar more aligned with the global game, an expansion strategy to support the development of the women’s game and growth in overseas markets, as well as a cap on clubs competing outside the UK. IMG is also calling for operations to be centralised to maximise efficiencies, in addition to a new brand strategy.

Probably the most controversial of the recommendations, though, is the prospect of ditching automatic promotion and relegation from Super League next season. Instead, participation in the game’s top flight will be dependent on other factors beyond on-pitch performance, such as attendance, catchment area and facilities. In practice, clubs will be reviewed and given a grade at the end of a season, with a maximum of 20 points available.

Despite some opposition to the looming overhaul, the RFL has dismissed accusations of shock tactics. Instead, it believes bringing in IMG to lay down a detailed blueprint for success will enable rugby league to flourish.

More than 60,000 fans attended the 2022 Super League grand final at Old Trafford 

“The stakeholders within the sport saw that we needed to grow effectively,” says Rhodri Jones, managing director of RL Commercial, which oversees all commercial aspects of the domestic game.

“We need a growth strategy. In the current climate, there are a couple of ways of looking into that. Either do it internally through [our own] means and resources, or externally [via] the private equity route. Super League had looked at private equity and hadn’t gone through with it.

“The third option was an external strategic partner. That’s the route that we went down to, in effect, turbocharge the resources that we have here. But [IMG will] also bring that independent perspective, give a real good look under the car bonnet and use their expertise to help us develop a growth strategy.”

“This is a 12-year partnership that we’ve entered into,” adds Matt Dwyer, vice president of sports management at IMG. “If this was something that could be achieved in a couple of months, then [the RFL and Super League] would have done that already.

“You don’t just double a fanbase in the space of a couple of months. The question we got asked a few times through this process is ‘why 12 years?’. The reason for that is this is a long-term process to grow this sport. That’s one where the foundations are the unsexy part of this sometimes.

“But you need to put these things in place, you need to change behaviors in the way that clubs are approaching the way that they’re doing things and at the league level as well.

“That’s going to take some time.”

What needs to change?

Put simply, the RFL knows it has to grow the sport’s fanbase. Jones describes the Super League audience on pay-TV network Sky Sports as “strong” and points to bumper crowds for the competition’s final, which drew 60,783 fans to Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium for the 2022 edition. A record total of 83,357 spectators also attended the six-match schedule over the Easter weekend.

Now, it’s about selling rugby league to a wider demographic.

“We are a fantastic sport,” continues Jones. “We are entertaining, fast and furious on the field, but [are active] in the local communities in the north of England. We need to talk about it more.

“A way of doing that is by developing our superstars, giving our players the best platforms to be able to showcase their skills and talent.”

“They’ve got a really great on-field show,” Dwyer agrees. “But the challenge is how we’re linking that back to fans, engaging with fans and growing that sport going forward.

“I think it’s also a sport where there is an incredibly successful league on the other side of the world (Australia’s NRL), which demonstrates that a lot of people can really enjoy this sport.

“That’s probably always been a little bit of a guiding position for us. If you can get enough people exposed to the sport and watching it, we know that there is proof that you can convert a very large fanbase from that.”

Plans have been set out to build players’ profiles to help attract new fans

To help drive audience growth, IMG has already leaned on its digital arm Seven League, which is working with the RFL and Super League to help the pair better understand their commercial assets and create new fan engagement opportunities. An audit has already taken place, covering everything from social media channels to digital infrastructure.

“The areas that we specifically looked at were the team and the people and the resource that they’ve got,” explains Bindi Ghai, vice president of digital commercial at Seven League. “So understanding what are their skillsets and how many people have they got across digital.”

Certain gaps in the team were identified and are now being filled. Seven League is also prioritising digital-first, channel-specific content.

“We really focus on new, innovative and creative ways that we can not only engage with new fans, but also retain that core audience through digital channels,” continues Ghai.

“Then the final one is really around the players. We very much believe that a lot of that growth is going to come from making the players a lot more digitally focused [and] working with them to help grow the sport and having people engage.”

How have clubs reacted?

Clubs and community bodies voted 88 per cent in favour of the proposed grading criteria. It means that, at the end of the 2024 season, the club finishing bottom of Super League could retain its place if it scores higher in the 20-point system than either a top-flight side or the top team in the second-tier Championship.

No longer having on-field performance as the deciding factor for success was always likely to prompt some pushback. Championship side Keighley Cougars led a rebellion that resulted in seven clubs voting against the proposal. However, all Super League clubs voted in favour, except for Catalans Dragons, who are based in Perpignan, France and were not entitled to vote.

Keighley co-owner Kaue Garcia insisted those who voted for the measures would be “an accomplice to this tragedy” and warned “the sport will one day remember your names”. He was also quick to point the finger at IMG, which he claimed was “masquerading on the false promise that this will elevate the standard of the sport”, labelling it “a lie”.

Garcia continued: “There is no money on offer to elevate the standards, it is simply a way to allow the elites to sail away, and leave the rest of the sport adrift.

“If this proposal goes ahead, it will be the death of Championship, League One and other heartland clubs – simple and straightforward.”

Supporting the development of the women’s game is among IMG’s recommendations

Super League faced similar criticism when clubs had to apply for a licence to play in the competition, which was partly decided based on their financial viability. This system, which was used from 2009 to 2014, meant automatic promotion from the Championship to Super League was not based purely on sporting achievement, drawing outcry from the second tier.

Jones has dismissed the latest plans as being another attempt at licensing and maintains that the vast majority of clubs continue to be supportive. While highlighting that Super League delivers more than 90 per cent of rugby league’s commercial income, he says the goal is for IMG’s recommendations to benefit teams further down the pyramid and close the revenue gap.

“There’s a real acknowledgment that change is needed amongst the clubs,” adds Dwyer.

“There’s never going to be a set of recommendations or a direction of travel that everybody agrees with unanimously. But their willingness to have an independent person come in, in this case IMG, and provide recommendations was really quite refreshing.

“I think that is one of the key reasons we were willing to get involved for the length that we are. [There is] that clear willingness and acceptance that if we want a different outcome, we need to do something differently.”

Keighley Cougars were among the clubs to oppose the grading criteria

Could Super League look abroad?

Super League often finds itself being compared, perhaps unfairly, with the National Rugby League (NRL). The Australian competition dwarfs its English counterpart when it comes to national appeal and is even reportedly targeting a doubleheader in Las Vegas to kick off its 2024 season.

Super League is not a total stranger to international fixtures, with the Leeds Rhinos having played the South Sydney Rabbitohs in Jacksonville, Florida in 2008. A return to the US is not imminent, even with IMG’s North American ties. But new markets are being explored as part of the league’s new direction, as are possible fixtures in partnership with the NRL further down the road.

“Is there an aspiration that in three to five years’ time we could be having a conversation with the NRL to say ‘look, let’s do a double opening weekend in Las Vegas?’. That’s not beyond the realms of possibility,” says Jones.

“But I think between now and then, we have to capture, to some extent, the UK market and make sure that we are as good as we can be there and [in] the French market.”

The initial domestic focus could lead to more games being played in large soccer venues such as the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium or Newcastle United’s St James Park. Jones also talks up games in London, namechecking Brentford’s Gtech Community Stadium. New locations, he says, are just one part of the desire to “think and do things slightly differently”.

Super League is not ruling out a return to the US, having seen Leeds Rhinos play the NRL’s South Sydney Rabbitohs in Florida in 2008

What happens next?

What the RFL and Super League want is nothing new. Innovative content, wider media rights distribution, brand building, and data collection are among the key elements of a successful commercial strategy. Rugby league has always catered to its fanbase in northern England, but now it knows it needs to open its arms to a wider audience.

“We can’t rely on them coming to us, we have to go to them,” says Jones. “Once we know what we’ve got and what we’re playing with, let’s move that forward.

“It’s very much an aspiration to come into contact with new fans. So we have to communicate in the right way, we have to make ourselves look appealing.

“If people watch a game of rugby league, they will go away and say, ‘wow, what a great sport that is’. It’s got everything you could ask for [and they] will come back, we know that.

“The hard bit is getting them to that point. Whether that be a TV viewer or through a turnstile.”

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