carnegieXchange: School of Sport

Survival of the Fittest: Altering the Rugby League Sport Product

Amid a global pandemic, 2020 is a special year for Rugby League in the UK – celebrating 125 years since the rebellious breakaway of the Northern Rugby Football Union in 1895.
Published on 05 Jun 2020

Acknowledging and celebrating the milestone is important as rugby league in England generally represents a northern minority sport built on working class values. These values and impressive community heritage has often made it difficult to find competitive advantage in professional sport’s hyper-commercialised and commodified crowded marketplace.

Consequently, rugby league’s finances generally are precarious rather than prosperous, luckily in this turbulent time, rugby league was first in line for  UK government support of a £16m loan. The Rugby Football League (RFL) Chief Executive Ralph Rimmer commented;  "This support enables the sport to survive, to reshape, to be ready to restart in this our 125th year and to look to a home World Cup."

Interestingly, Rugby League has not been shy of ‘reshaping’ things. It has been one of the most actively innovative leagues, adopting numerous, rule, operational and structural changes – mainly in an attempt to broaden the commercial and consumer audience outside its heartlands.  The most profound of course, the introduction of Super League moving it from a winter sport to a summer sport. The move seemingly attempted to increase its international appeal with the inclusion of Paris Saint-Germain.  Since then the sport continued its expansion efforts across the game with Catalan Dragons, Toulouse Olympique XIII and more recently Toronto Wolfpack, Ottawa Aces and New York City with the hopes of tapping into the North American market. 

However, 2021 also marks the fruition of Rugby Leagues 2021 strategic plan. This plan was reviewed in 2019 due to changes in governance, seeing the Super League gain greater control of their competition from the RFL – much like the Football Association’s decision with the English Premier League. 2019 also brought further changes to the promotion and relegation system, opting for a simplified version of the system introduced in 2015.

The RFL’s 2015 restructuring, was perhaps one of the most significant within professional sport leagues, moving from closed league operating a licensing system, to an open league operating a promotion and relegation system. The importance of this change provided an opportunity for lower league clubs to prosper. The problem, of course, akin to all sport leagues follow the ‘survival of the fittest’ mantra and focus efforts on ‘cash cow’ leagues – such as the Super League, rather than lower tiers. Consequently, how can lower leagues clubs compete both on and off the pitch?

Our recent research documents how the 2015 changes influenced marketing functions in Championship clubs. The dual appeal of jeopardy (for relegation) and hope (for promotion) was supposed to reinvigorate fans of Championship and League 1 clubs. However, a popular perspective saw that the Super 8 format introduced excessive jeopardy. Citing perilously short planning cycles and excessive uncertainty, many clubs were reluctant to invest in marketing initiatives.

Indeed, uncertainty and jeopardy are the fabric of sport, it is what makes the spectator sport product unique. But this also impedes strategic abilities. We also found most clubs in the second-tier of rugby league – The Championship – engaged in very little strategic marketing planning, identifying barriers such as resources, human capital, organisation and leadership. Therefore, is it incumbent on management to establish supportive protocols for clubs, especially lower-league clubs, to support key business functions. Our findings suggest, the most welcomed support should be in the form of centralised resources to aid their ability to engage in strategic marketing planning.

The prominent question currently is how rugby league will use the government loan? Indeed, there are larger discussions around whether £16 million can save a sport? Or how appropriate it is to lend money when the sport’s financial situation is already precarious. While the terms and conditions associated to the loan are unclear and will be entangled in many legal and governance issues, the most logical opportunity is to use the money to support lower leagues clubs who seemingly feel disenfranchised. According to our research, the RFL should invest in supporting business functions of clubs such as strategic marketing.

While the sport is not financially rich, it’s most valuable commodity is its history, heritage and community values, which are also important features of  rugby league’s product.  These product characteristics should continue to be celebrated and promoted to new audiences through effective marketing practice, especially in the buildup and through the 2021 Rugby League World Cup hosted in England.


Dr Alexander Bond

Senior Lecturer / Carnegie School Of Sport

Alexander Bond is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Management and leads the MSc Sport Business Management. He also leads the Management and Governance Theme for the Research Centre of Social Justice in Sport and Society.