SUPER LEAGUE general manager Blake Solly is more confident than ever that the competition’s “new era” will herald great success. He says the dividends are already being seen.
That said, one of the leading figures behind the structure move that sees Super League and the Championship split into three groups of eight in July before playing off to determine the make-up of the league in 2016, admits a little anxiety still lingers.
The official season launch got underway yesterday and so the sport is edging closer to the start of what could be a seminal year in its history, certainly the biggest since the decision to switch from winter to summer in 1996.
In an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Post, Solly said: “I’ve always been confident about the “new era” but, as you now start to see Thursday’s season opener between Widnes and Wigan coming towards you, it is like a runaway freight train at this time of the year!
“The feedback to the recent launch video, though, has been outstanding, announcing the sell-out of the St Helens v South Sydney World Club Series game on Thursday has been great, too, while Hull KR hope to sell-out Sunday’s game versus Leeds.
“There was a fantastic attendance for Jamie Peacock’s testimonial as well so it feels that the interest in the sport has been better than it’s been for a long time.
“Whilst always nervous at the start of the season we’re confident everything we’ve put in place and tried to do in the last six months is working.”
The evidence there come from the clubs themselves, obviously key protagonists as the striking new format is put into place.
Aimed, among other things, at reducing the number of dead-rubber games and making the sport more consistently exciting, it remains a leap of faith but Solly insists they have already received positive feedback.
Will, though, the new format only be a triumph if a side from the Championship is able to upset the status quo and earn promotion to Super League in 2016?
“I’ve never believed that the success and failure of the new era would be defined by who gets promoted and relegated at the end of the year,” said Solly.
“Provided the Qualifiers (middle eight tier between Super League’s bottom four and Championship top four) are competitive that means it’s worth doing.
“We’ve already seen with the TV deal and the season ticket sales clubs are reporting, and their revenues, that the clubs are saying they’re in a better financial position than they were 12 months ago.
“So, on any number of measures there’s already been success.
“Once you start playing and teams start losing and getting bad decisions it sometimes takes the shine of it.
“But we’re really confident what we’ve put in place will work, 2015 will be a great year and it can also be a year we can build on.
“That’s because we’ll learn an awful lot about the structure, whether it needs fine-tuning, and we can do that for 2016, 2017 and beyond.”
That is a certainty – the new structure will be in place for the foreseeable future given the terms of the £200m broadcast deal with Sky Sports that runs until 2021.
“One of the justifiable criticisms you could level at the sport is that we do change things too quickly and aren’t willing to stay the course,” continued Solly, who was involved in the previous licence process, too, that was disbanded after six years.
“But this was the structure Sky bought into and they have purchased it until 2021.
“Our view is that that’s the least we can run it for.
“Having put an awful lot of work into this new structure and tested it with people like KPMG and Leeds Met and had clubs run a real strong rule over it, I think we should give it time to succeed and benefit the whole sport.
“The clubs have been absolutely fantastic. Right from last July when we started the “New Era” campaign they have gone above and beyond in their support for (marketing director) Mark Foster and I in terms of what we’ve asked them to do.
“We’ve also done better in terms of working with them than we probably have ever done before and that relationship is as strong as it’s ever been in my time in the sport.
“Everything we do we make sure it has a benefit for them and they are reciprocating that so, as a collective, staff on the grounds at the clubs have been superb.”
Critics will say the odds are stacked against any Championship side hoping to break into the elite, especially in this first year of the new-look competition.
Solly, however, disagrees and said: “Certainly speaking to the guys at Bradford, London and Leigh they have their sights set on doing it in 2015.
“And, in some ways, there’s no reason why not. They’ve stayed full-time and, though slightly disadvantaged with the salary cap, their view is that come round 23 when the split comes they will be full of beans having had really good regular seasons.
“They will then be taking on Super League clubs who have been weakened and not had as many wins so are probably creaking a little. I don’t see any reason why there can’t be some promotion in 2015.”