Memorandum submitted by the All-Party
Parliamentary Rugby League Group
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.
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
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)
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
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
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
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.
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
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).
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.
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