Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 3

Memorandum submitted by the All-Party Parliamentary Rugby League Group

INTRODUCTION

  1.  The All-Party Parliamentary Rugby League Group welcomes the establishment of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee's Inquiry into professional rugby and the opportunity to set out our views on the issues being addressed by the Committee within its terms of reference. We have divided our evidence into two broad sections, firstly, that concerning the implications of Union's "professionalism" and secondly that concerning the internal arrangements, organisation and problems of the sport of Rugby League.

  2.  Our Group has been in existence since 1988 when it was formed to draw political attention to a range of issues of concern within both amateur and professional Rugby League. We currently have around 80 members in the Commons and Lords. Among the membership are individuals who have played the sport at an amateur and professional level or served in various capacities at club or higher levels within the game.

  3.  At the time of its formation, our Group wished in particular to address the blatant discrimination against our sport and its participants as a result of the so-called "amateurism" regulations then operating within Rugby Union. The efforts made by the group to bring pressure to bear on the Rugby Union authorities regarding the attitude towards Rugby League players, undoubtedly contributed to the decision of the Rugby Union International Board in 1995 to allow open professionalism in their game. We recognise that the conclusions of the 1995 Inquiry by the National Heritage Select Committee into relations between the two codes of rugby played a very important part in the whole process of radical change within Rugby Union which, as we will set out, has also had significant implications for both amateur and professional Rugby League.

  4.  It is also worth recalling that during 1995 Rugby League, in its Centenary year, was itself undergoing a revolution within its professional arm following the Rugby Football League's contract with Sky TV and the move to summer rugby which began during 1996. Our Group initiated a Parliamentary debate around the time of the proposals for Super League and members expressed serious concerns about both the implications of an apparent "take-over" of the professional game by News Limited and proposals that were then being considered to merge some of the game's most famous professional clubs.

  5.  While there were, and still are, differences of opinion within our Group, and the game as a whole, about the merits of the Super League development, the impact of the changes agreed in 1995 have undoubtedly been of great significance and we will discuss these later in this submission.

THE IMPLICATIONS OF "OPEN" PROFESSIONALISM IN RUGBY UNION FOR RUGBY LEAGUE

  6.  At the time of the Rugby Union International Board decision, to allow "open" professionalism, there were many national "rugby" (ie Union) commentators predicting the demise of Rugby League as a direct consequence. Their assumption was that League had existed solely as an outlet and safety valve for a minority who wished to earn money from their rugby activities. They had also grossly over-estimated the importance of big name Union converts to League, assuming that few would wish to change codes in future with dramatic consequences for League.

  7.  Such commentators totally failed to understand the fact that League has traditionally taken great pride in operating as a totally distinct independent sport with markedly different rules and a fundamentally different, much more inclusive, sporting culture. They also failed to appreciate the fact that the vast majority of British players recruited to professional Rugby League (over 95 per cent according to RFL evidence to the National Heritage Committee Inquiry) come from amateur Rugby League.

  8.  There have nevertheless been some very significant implications for professional Rugby League arising from Union's open professionalism.

  9.  Perhaps the main one has been the inflationary impact of the initial salary levels agreed by top Union clubs to recruit players in the first couple of seasons. There was, at first, serious concern within some professional Rugby League clubs that the rewards being offered by the likes of Sir John Hall's Newcastle Rugby Union club could lead to the loss of significant numbers of prominent Rugby League players.

  10.  While a number of former Union players were tempted back from League at the time, the game was able to retain the vast majority of its star players. Several of those who chose to play a winter season in Union whilst still contracted to Rugby League clubs, returned having learned that their handling skills were less valued in a 15-a-side code which, despite the adoption of several rules and practices from League, still emphasises the rucking, mauling and kicking game with which they were largely unfamiliar.

  11.  It may well be argued that the initial impact of Union's early attempts at professionalism could have had a more serious impact upon League if the Sky TV funding had not at that time enabled Rugby League clubs to enhance player contracts. In this respect there is a very real concern that the initial setting of what have subsequently proved to be frequently unsustainable salary levels in Union had the indirect effect of diverting resources received by League through the Sky deal into increased player rewards rather than important development work or ground improvements by professional clubs.

  12.  We welcome the steps taken by professional Rugby League clubs to introduce salary caps related to overall income but remain concerned that, in League as in Union, the payments being made to players are still frequently beyond the actual means of their clubs.

  13.  Obviously, in addition to income from television deals and sponsorship, the main revenue received by Rugby League clubs arises from spectator attendance at matches. In this respect our Group are concerned that the advent of Super League has not had the marked impact upon improved gates that its proponents anticipated. We believe that there are a number of possible reasons for this, some of which many relate directly to the changes that have occurred within Rugby Union.

  14.  Firstly, it is clear that open professionalism in Union and the increased emphasis on the importance of League and cup competition between clubs in that code has led to Union having its highest ever media profile. Our impression is that while Union's profile has increased, League's has generally decreased, with some national newspapers giving little, if any, coverage to the sport. In our view the poor media coverage given to Rugby League has a direct impact upon the game's failure to improve spectator attendances. We also recognise that the confinement of most of Rugby League's television coverage to Sky channels obviously results in less coverage elsewhere.

  15.  We strongly recommend the Committee to consider the reasons why League consistently receives a fraction of the coverage given to Union club rugby and have enclosed with our submission research evidence (Reference 1[1]) received recently from the House of Commons Library, outlining comparative attendances for the two codes for the most recent period available. Bearing in mind the fact that the average spectator attendance for both the professional divisions of Rugby League in England is clearly higher than those in Union, it is a matter of serious concern that media coverage is not at the very least broadly comparable.

  16.  Obviously, there will be some who claim the discrepancy in media coverage arises from the perception of League's geographic concentration being primarily in the North of England. We would strongly counter this point by drawing attention to the very marked expansion in active participation in the sport of Rugby League away from its traditional areas since the removal of the barriers to Union players also playing League. Perhaps the best example of this is the enormously successful Summer Conference League which has thriving clubs participating from numerous areas of the East and West Midlands, East Anglia, the Southeast and Southwest of England as well as more traditional areas in the North. Many of the players participating in these clubs are individuals who have only previously experienced Rugby Union that have been converted to League since the barriers were lifted in 1995.

  17.  While Sky and BBC TV coverage of Rugby League matches is seen nationwide, we are concerned that the BBC and ITV companies regionalise their coverage of the sport to the detriment of coverage of League news and match highlights in areas outside the North of England. We recognise the difficulties a Super League contract with Sky TV poses for coverage by other broadcasters and welcome the recent arrangements whereby BBC TV can use Sky coverage to show recorded highlights. The recent half hour BBC 2 programme each Monday evening devoted to Rugby League is an important step forward but sadly this is confined only to the North of England and to Super League.

  18.  In addressing the implications of this perception of League as an exclusively Northern pastime, we were interested in the comparative coverage in national newspapers of the two codes' respective Cup finals which both took place during May of this year at stadia within London. Interestingly both finals featured teams from the North and South, with the London Broncos Rugby League side making its first appearance in a major final. Despite the obvious Southern interest in the League final, and the fact that this match attracted nearly double the number of spectators than its Union equivalent, the media coverage it received overall, especially in national newspapers, was considerably less.

  19.  The failure to accord the sport of Rugby League a similar status to Union in terms of media coverage is in our view a major factor in its inability to increase spectator attendances. Undoubtedly, with a media based primarily in the South, the "Northern" stereo-typing of League is an important factor in this problem but we believe that there are also other factors which have a bearing on the marked discrepancy in coverage of the two codes. As this Group pointed out in its submission to the 1995 National Heritage Committee Inquiry, throughout its history the sport of Rugby League has faced bigotry, discrimination and prejudice frequently as a consequence of the past social class divide between participants in Union and League. The game was until very recently banned within the British Armed Forces and within the education system is still the province primarily of comprehensive schools, rarely if every being played in grammar, private and public schools. Despite the progress made by League in colleges and universities, the impact of this continued exclusion of League from the sporting experience of vast numbers inevitably impacts on the outlook of many opinion formers, decision makers and commentators in the media.

  20.  In short, they are often ignorant of the strength and importance of the sport of Rugby League, a consequence of which is the frequent use of the collective term "rugby" to refer specifically just to Rugby Union. We consistently hear references in the broadcast media and newspapers to "rugby" correspondents whose brief is entirely to deal with just Rugby Union. Bearing in mind that there have been two distinct codes for 104 years and the fact that League's match attendances are at the very least broadly comparable to those in Union, we understand the concerns of League supporters over the use of the collective term "rugby" to refer only to Union. Such concerns are reinforced by the fact that a number of national "rugby" correspondents are well known for their dislike of Rugby League. It is a simple fact that not infrequently the only coverage given to Rugby League in some national newspapers and broadcasting media arises from derogatory reference to the sport by "rugby" (ie Union) correspondents. We hope the Committee will recognise the validity of our concerns in respect of this point and consider ways in which the merits of the completely independent sport of Rugby League might be properly and more fairly reflected within media coverage.

  21.  We make this point about League being a completely independent sport because we hope the Committee will accept that there is no desire among most Rugby League supporters for a merging of the two codes which has been muted among some commentators. While undoubtedly at club level relationships between the codes have considerably improved as a consequence of the International Rugby Union Board's 1995 decision, we are not aware of any serious proposals to develop just one common handling code.

  22.  Most people involved in Rugby League would, we believe, very strongly oppose any changes of rules geared to a process of merger. This view arises not just from a preference for the sporting spectacle resulting from their game's rules, but also from the legacy of Union's attitudes towards League over the past Century.

  23.  Such attitudes and concerns, however, will not prevent Union continuing to adopt League rules and practices which have clearly resulted in much more similarity between the codes. It should be remembered that the adoption of league table competition in Union is a relatively recent phenomenon which was opposed by those in that sport who believed it was moving them nearer to League. Union have taken numerous on the field rules directly from League including the adoption of knock-on rules, the kick to touch on the bounce from the 20 metre areas, the tap penalty and the sin bin. After 100 years of vilifying league for its professional elements, Union has allowed open professionalism and is adopting League's salary capping arrangements. And within the Union press, there continues to be vigorous debate about the possibility of reducing the number of players, possibly to 13, and over the possible abolition of the line out.

  24.  We hope the Committee will recognise that there is certainly no desire for a merged code among most of those involved in Rugby League. There remains however some nagging doubts that proposals for one game with common rules may be driven forward by the interests of TV companies. It should be noted in particular that Sky TV is now the main broadcaster for Union as well as League and in a key position to influence the future relationship between the two codes.

THE INTERNAL ARRANGEMENTS, ORGANISATION AND PROBLEMS OF THE SPORT OF RUGBY LEAGUE

  25.  In addressing the wider concerns of our Group regarding matters solely relating to Rugby League, we would wish to reiterate some of the points raised when the future of the sport was debated in Parliament during 1995.

  26.  At that time, there was considerable controversy within the game over the advent of Super League and its implications. Our Group remains of the opinion that Super League, rather than being simply a marketing arm of the game, as originally envisaged, has apparently broken away from the Rugby Football League's overall management of the game. While such a breakaway is continually denied we find it difficult to understand why Super League found it necessary to form a separate administration. They have their own separate headquarters, chairman and chief executive and in 1998 negotiated a contract with News Corporation worth £45 million over the years 1999 to 2003. This appears to be confirmation of an independent body.

  27.  The resources arising from the new contract are allocated solely to Super League Europe with nothing for the clubs outside Super League within the Northern Ford Premiership. We have very serious worries about the future of such clubs and share the views of many Rugby League followers that the apparent breakaway causing this problem is a betrayal of the real interests of Rugby League. Members of this Group recognise through contacts with their own local clubs that there is a belief in the game that some decisions already taken by Super League clubs may even have breached Rugby Football League bye-laws and we believe these concerns should be fully examined.

  28.  The Group also remains mystified over the circumstances under which the previous Chief Executive of the Rugby Football League was appointed as Chief Executive of Super League Europe, funded by the Rugby Football League. In view of the financial constraints facing Rugby League, as well as Rugby Union, we would be interested to establish why it was thought necessary to create a costly separate administration at Super League level. We would strongly urge the return of the Super League function and administration to the Rugby Football League to end the current wasteful duplication within the professional game. We believe this would enable the best use of scarce resources and would urge the Committee to consider this specific point during its Inquiry.

  29.  We believe that in terms of the relationship between Super League Europe and the Rugby Football League, considerable lessons can be learned from the developments arising since 1997 in respect of the partnership between amateur and professional Rugby League. While retaining their separate identities, the partnership agreement between BARLA and the RFL has led to the successful operation of the Rugby League Joint Policy Board concerned with game wide development strategies. The original partnership agreement has been superseded by a further five year agreement and has brought to an end years of duplication and wasted resources which the game could ill afford.

  30.  We made reference earlier to the comparative attendances between top level Rugby Union and Rugby League clubs. As a Group we are concerned that the advent of Super League has not resulted in either the markedly increased attendances anticipated or improvements in the financial standing of individual clubs. With regard to attendances, we would urge the Committee to fully research and consider the implications for Rugby League attendances of the move to Super League and summer rugby. There is considerable debate within the game over trends in spectator attendances and a concern that the game's following at matches declines as each season progresses through spring and into the better summer weather. Figures for the most recent Super League attendances round by round during 1998, produced by the House of Commons Library, appear to confirm this trend. (Reference 2[2]).

  31.  In addition to the problems facing clubs outside Super League as a consequence of their exclusion from the new Sky contract, they face even more difficulties attracting spectators and have lost additional revenues through the abandonment of traditional cup competitions such as the Regal Trophy and County Cup competitions. We believe it is not in the interests of the game as a whole for a few clubs to be enjoying the benefits of sponsorship money to the detriment of the rest.

  32.  It is our impression that the vast majority of clubs are in no better financial position now than they were prior to the News Corporation contract. For reasons we have already set out relating to the open professionalisation of Union, much of this new resourcing appears to have found its way into player contracts with little apparent support for the regeneration of the structure of the game and capital investment in ground accommodation.

  33.  We know that the Committee will have received evidence regarding the serious difficulties facing individual professional Rugby League clubs as a consequence of safety at sports grounds legislation. It is unfortunate that a game which is noted for high standards of crowd behaviour has received only limited help from successive governments to undertake improvements required as a direct consequence of serious problems in soccer. While we believe that Rugby League clubs have a duty to improve spectator accommodation, we recognise the serious problems meeting the required changes have caused and hope the Committee will accept the need to consider improved levels of funding and other assistance to both Rugby League and other sports.

  34.  Finally we hope that the Committee will take the opportunity to consider the implications of the inclusion of increased numbers of overseas players in the game of Rugby League. While there is no doubt that some of these players do add to the quality of the sporting spectacle, we are concerned about their impact upon the development of home grown talent and would urge the Committee to consider the adequacy of current restrictions on overseas players.

June 1999


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