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


Memorandum submitted by Chris Gratton and Lisa Ann O'Keeffe of the Leisure Industries Research Centre (LIRC)


  1.1  The Leisure Industries Research Centre (LIRC) would like to thank the Culture, Media and Sport Committee for the invitation to submit evidence to the House of Commons Inquiry into the Future of Professional Rugby.

  1.2  The LIRC is a joint research center of Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield. It specialises in economic aspects of sport and has carried out several consultancies in the economics inspect of major sports events including the economic impact of Euro '96.

  Its clients include the UK, English and Scottish Sports Councils as well as the DCMS. A major focus of LIRC's work is the economics of professional team sports.

  Chris Gratton, the Director of LIRC, is regarded internationally as an expert on the economics of sport and is chair of the panel for sports-related subjects (Unit of Assessment 69) in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise for universities.

  1.3  Lisa Ann O'Keeffe has worked as a fitness coach/conditioner in professional Rugby League at international level for the French national side at the 1995 Rugby League World Cup and for the First Division clubs, Batley Bulldogs and Doncaster Dragons. She also has experience of working as a personal trainer for individual players from Hull Sharks, Hull Kingston Rovers, Sheffield Eagles and Wakefield Wildcats. She has been researching for her PhD for the past three years, examining the economic, financial and social impact of the move to Super League on the sport and the implications for its future, under the supervision of Chris Gratton.

  1.4  We are pleased to share some observations, based on this experience with the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and have focused our evidence on two specific areas:

    —  The financial state of Rugby League prior to the move to Super League;

    —  The effects of the move to satellite television on the game of Rugby League; and

    —  Implications for the future of Rugby League.


  2.1  Following a financial analysis of the member clubs of the Rugby League between 1991-1993, several worrying facts were revealed:

    —  During this time, professional Rugby League clubs lost £8.8 million, equating to nearly £3 million per annum;

    —  Of the 31 clubs examined, 17 were technically insolvent;

    —  Gross income increased by only 3 per cent, while wage/salary expenditure increased by 10 per cent;

    —  Wage/salary expenditure as a percentage of gross income rose from 67.4 per cent in 1990-1991 to 76.5 per cent by 1992-93; and

    —  Of the gross income, gate receipts accounted for only 47 per cent, whereas wage/salary expenditure accounted for 122.5 per cent of gate receipts.

  2.2  The Framing the Future report presented to Rugby League's member clubs in August 1994 therefore described the financial position of the game as in crisis.

  2.3  In order to try to solve some of the game's financial problems, certain changes have been implemented. These include:

    —  The change to a new Super League structure;

    —  The conversion from the traditional winter playing schedule to a summer one;

    —  The acceptance of a £87 million financial investment from BSkyB in exchange for the broadcasting rights to the game; and

    —  The introduction of a salary cap to try to alleviate overspending on wages/salaries, especially those of playing staff.

  2.4  Although some of these decisions were made before the proposal from BSkyB, their offer proved to be the catalyst in the removal of the game from terrestrial television and onto the satellite channel BSkyB.


  3.1  As already demonstrated the financial state of the sport prior to 1996 was critical. This led to the Rugby Football League's acceptance of BSkyB's investment of £87 million, in return for the broadcasting rights. However a new deal was negotiated in 1998 worth only £44 million, which was to last for five years from 1999-2003.

  3.2  Rugby League was first shown live on television in the 1950s, coverage which continued on terrestrial television usually via the BBC and included the Challenge Cup, screened live from Wembley each year.

  3.3  The BBC's average viewing figures and per cent share (this indicates the percentage of viewers watching television at the time who were tuned into Rugby League) from 1992-97 (Table 1) indicate that each game attracted between 2.5 and 3.4 million viewers. This representing some 33 per cent of the watching television audience.

Table 1

YearAverage Viewing Figures (millions) % Share

  3.4  When compared to BSkyB's figures however, there is a marked difference. Table 2 shows the 1997 viewing figures for the six games that appeared on the BBC during the season and those shown on Sky Sports channels.

Table 2

BBC Average Viewing
Figures (millions)
BSkyB Average Viewing
Figures (millions)
% Share
% Share
3.10.131   2  
2.30.126   2  
2.30.0627   1  
1.80.1424   2.3  
2.70.2534   2  
2.70.233   3  

  3.5  From these figures, it is clearly indicated that since the move to the satellite channels of BSkyB the game has no longer enjoyed the "television support" it gained via the BBC.

  3.6  It should also be noted that a similar pattern can be found in Rugby Union. Previously screened international matches shown on BBC attracted average audiences of between 5.3 million and 6.8 million during the period 1990-1995. However, live coverage of England versus New Zealand on BSkyB in November 1997 gained an audience of only 740,000, representing only 8 per cent of the viewing public.


  Due to the switch to satellite television since 1996, the majority of people can no longer see the game within their homes on a regular basis. This has several knock on effects:

  4.1  Attendances: due to a lack of national exposure, people may lose interest in a sport that is not regularly available to view within their homes. Football for example has demonstrated how increased television exposure has helped to increase attendances at live games.

  4.2  In 1996, the first Super League season, 7 out of 11 in the top flight saw a decline in their attendance figures, when compared to the last full season, 1994-95. Only Bradford, St. Helens, London and Sheffield had shown an improvement. 1997 saw 5 clubs improve their figures, with over 50 per cent recording a drop. Again in 1998 a similar pattern emerges, with 9 teams recording a decline in average attendances.

  4.3  Last season, 1998 showed the lowest total attendance since the start of the new Super League:

Table 3

Pre Super League Post Super League
YearAttendance YearAttendance
1990-911,539,8051996 1,253,335
1991-921,548,6301997 1,269,786
1992-931,451,3721998 1,239,573

  4.4  The attached graph also demonstrates the breakdown of attendances for each division in Rugby League. The figures for the Super League, when compared with football attendances are actually lower than those recorded for the Third Division in football.


  5.1  This decline in attendance figures and the number of people actually watching the sport on television highlights potential problems for the future:

    —  Super League was introduced in order to solve the crisis that the game found itself in. However not only has this been unsuccessful, but the crisis remains and is even worse than before;

    —  The fact that only a small percentage of the population can watch Rugby League on television effects the promotion of the game;

    —  The decline in attendances, compounded by the continuing increase in the average age of the Rugby League supporter, the majority being within the 40-60 year old age bracket, suggests that the ageing spectators are not being replaced by new young fans;

    —  This emphasizes the danger of lack of television exposure by BSkyB to the younger generations as there will not be the future generations to not only support the game, but to provide its future stars. Rugby League needs to be regarded by youngsters as a major teams sport, with which they want to be involved; and

    —  Rugby League is in competition today with so many other leisure and sporting pursuits that if exposure is lacking, then as a game with an ageing supporter base, its future seems precarious.

June 1999

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 14 December 1999