Trying – and succeeding – to convert rugby league into a winning formula

NIGEL Wood is in bullish mood. And you can't blame him for that.

The day before our meeting, the Rugby Football League announced deals which will see Sky and the BBC continue to share television coverage of rugby league until at least 2011.

The game is on a high.

The recently completed season saw record attendances, with Leeds Rhinos defeating St Helens in a gripping play-off final watched by millions on TV, while last month, Great Britain trounced New Zealand in a Test series whitewash.

As well as Super League coverage, the TV deals, believed to be worth in excess of 50m, will see the Challenge Cup remain on the BBC until the end of the 2011 season.

Although Wood won't be drawn into the exact worth of the deals and what slice each engage Super League club will receive from Sky, citing the fact both contracts still have to be signed, he is delighted with the outcome, despite some commentators believing the RFL could have negotiated a higher value.

"We're pleased that it gives the sport an opportunity to develop, to provide some financial stability to all the clubs and it facilitates the instigation of the licensing programme over the next three years, which is a central policy of the sport," Wood says.

From 2009, Super League will introduce a system which will see clubs spend at least three years in the elite format. Automatic promotion and relegation will be scrapped from the end of next season. Entry will be dependent on criteria, including business plans, ground attendances and community involvement.

The embracing of the licensing (or franchising) system is also expected to see the current 12 clubs joined by two others in 2009, with a possibility that Super League could expand still further in the future.

Speaking at the RFL's Red Hall headquarters, on the outskirts of Leeds, Wood said: "Because we're moving to a licensed competition, Super League will have better revenue streams that will allow it to make progress in areas, such as junior development."

Although Wood admits the new system will help the weaker Super League clubs develop and make for a more competitive competition, he won't lose sight of the fact that there is more to the game than Super League.

"At the same time, there's recognition that the National League is a very valuable and exciting prospect," he says. "We are talking with the clubs to ensure that they are developed in a sensible way. That's the thinking with the part-time level of the game."

National League clubs will still have the opportunity to enter Super League.

Wood says: "The obvious benefit of moving to a licensed competition is the removal of the annual fear of relegation so it facilitates an investment such as junior development and infrastructure and a considered approach to how clubs are funded."

Wood says the change will stop clubs desperate to avoid relegation splashing out vital funds on big-name players to try to help them avoid the drop. A tactic which, if it goes wrong, can have drastic consequences.

"It's a strategy that's intended to provide a holistic approach to club and business development.

"A central objective is that the bottom clubs are made stronger by this rather than one becoming stronger at the expense of the other.

"Chasing the dream causes financial failure. We're trying to deliver profitability for clubs at all levels so people and commercial partners are attracted to the industry, and we're trying to raise standards across all aspects of running clubs."

Prior to his appointment, last month, as the RFL's chief executive, Wood was chief operating officer and finance director of the organisation and is proud of its financial performance over recent years.

"We've just delivered a sixth consecutive year of profit. In 2001, there were 2m of losses after years of the RFL spending more than it was generating and on the back of a poor financial result from the World Cup in 2000."

Wood was brought into the RFL in 2002 to change the governance of the sport.

One of the first moves was to introduce an independent board of directors, which, Wood says, "have been working to PLC standards of governance ever since".

Non-executive directors are Ian Edwards, a former media director at the All England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon; Maurice Watkins, one of the most prominent lawyers in sport; and former Morrisons chief Bob Stott.

Including Wood, the final member of the board is executive chairman Richard Lewis.

"From 2002 onwards, we've turned the performance around," explains Wood. "As a board, you must strive towards financial stability and turnover growth and investment in the game."

Despite Wood's upbeat assessment, the RFL's figures for the 2006 financial year were hit. Turnover fell from 12.8m to 10.8m, while pre-tax profit plunged from 487,701 to 139,008.

Wood says this was caused by Great Britain travelling to the Southern Hemisphere to play a Test series against Australia and New Zealand. Without a home international programme, important revenue was lost.

But cash will be gained in this financial year, thanks to the recent three-Test series against New Zealand in this country.

Wood said: "Next year, you have the World Cup, so turnover will be lower, but in 2009, a series will be here."

Wood is predicting the League's finances will be up 30 per cent on 2006, thanks to factors including average attendances for Super League games being 10,264, the introduction of Millennium Magic, an initiative which saw all six matches in round 13 of Super League played at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, the Carnegie Challenge Cup final returning to the newly built Wembley, and lucrative sponsorship deals.

Wood says the RFL is working on its strategy for the 2009 to 2013 period and says that two major objectives for the RFL over the next six years are to further build profitable domestic competitions and a successful international side.

Each of the home nations will now compete individually rather than under the Great Britain banner, although they will, ultimately, be governed by the RFL.

Wood believes that moves such as this make it even more important to improve the sport's community links.

"The sport may not be played in all the places around the country but where it is, it is much loved with a fervour.

"No doubt many sports position themselves as family sports, but rugby league is a sport for the family and you only have to turn up for a game to witness that first hand."

He says that an important strand of the governing body's business plan is promoting investment in clubs' junior teams to nurture young talent to allow clubs to develop their own stars rather than having to buy in players from overseas.

Wood, a former Bradford Northern colt, who played at Odsal as a second team player, and also at Halifax, says that over the last 18 months, the RFL has introduced "service area co-ordinators" whose role it is to support and develop the game at grassroots level.

The RFL is also introducing a "home-grown player" rule which will mean each club squad will have a to have a minimum number of British-based players.

Wood, a Bradfordian, who before joining the RFL was deputy head of finance for BBC North, says that although rugby league will never match football's financial power, he believes its professionals should be paid in line with their star status.

"Through the new plan, one of the things we want to focus on is career planning. By going full-time, we've created an industry that's attractive to young athletes and we need to make sure we're treating them with the respect they deserve in areas such as player welfare, pension planning, post-career planning and insurance."

Following his stint at the BBC, Wood was chief executive of Halifax RLFC. Prior to that, he worked in Bradford at organisations including Microvitec and Parkland, where he recognised that the RFL touches the community.

"One of the phenomena of rugby league is that you take the fan on the terrace, the player on the paddock, the directors in the boardroom, and they'll invariably have been born and bred on the same estates, and that provides a common bond that's a real strength to the game. We pride ourselves that our athletes in particular are very very accessible to the public and it must always remain like that.

"The players understand the debt they owe the community and treat it with the respect it deserves. It's in the DNA of the sport to be with the community, by the community and for the community."

Nigel Wood

Title: Chief executive of Rugby Football League.

Date of birth: September 4, 1963.

First job: Trust Accountant, Deloitte Haskins & Sells (Bradford).

Last book read: Peter Ridsdale – United We fall and just finishing Stevo's (Mike Stephenson) autobiography.

Favourite holiday destination: Anywhere with the family, some sun and a pool.

Car driven: Galaxy.

Favourite song: Brass in Pocket by The Pretenders.