Rugby Football League chief commercial officer Roger Draper has revealed Super League clubs are in discussion with the governing body about the possibility of introducing central contracts for England players.
As a former chief executive of both Sport England (2003-06) and the Lawn Tennis Association (2006-13), he is well versed in the challenges facing modern professional sport.
Having now been in situ in the newly-created RFL role for two months, Draper has begun to get to grips with some of the main issues affecting the sport.
Talking to The Yorkshire Post at the Betfred Super League launch in Leigh yesterday, he conceded retaining the sport’s best talent is crucial in helping them achieve many of their aims.
With Wigan centre Dan Sarginson and St Helens back Jordan Turner the latest players to head to Australia in the NRL, joining the likes of England stars Sam Burgess, James Graham and Josh Hodgson Down Under, plus the ever-pervading threat of rugby union, the domestic competition has a battle on to do so.
The sport, whose £1.8m salary cap compares unfavourably with such rivals, has always resisted following the lead of the English cricket team and Ireland’s rugby union side in introducing central contracts.
However, Draper, who was Warrington chief executive until last October, said: “The two big things for us are, firstly, how do we grow the competition – fans, attendances, TV viewers, sponsorship, commercial, digital and get more involved in the sport?
“But the second big thing is how do we retain and attract the best talent in it, too? I know from running tennis that if we didn’t have Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray then fans just would not come and you wouldn’t get sponsors, TV contracts and so on.
“I’m encouraged this year that my old club Warrington have signed Ben Currie and Daryl Clark on long-term contracts, Kallum Watkins is in at Leeds and we do need the very best talent staying in Super League.
“It’s great having (former Leeds Rhinos and England captain) Kevin Sinfield on board now as (RFL) rugby director rugby as we’re now planning ahead to the 2021 World Cup in this country and we want the best British talent playing here.
“We know there is competition from Premiership rugby and the NRL so we’re looking at ways (of countering that).
“The salary cap hasn’t changed too much so do we tweak that, do we introduce more home-grown marquee players or – and we’re having a debate at the moment – do we look at central contracts?
“I had my first meeting with Super League chairmen and chief execs on Friday and all of this came under the broad heading of ‘how do we keep the best British talent in Super League for the next five years?’”
Draper said the governing body is serious about investing financially in the process to protect the game’s finest stars.
“We’re very open to doing it as it is in the best interests of the sport,” he continued. “It’s what everyone wants – people don’t want to be watching dull rugby league matches with average players. They want quality matches with exciting players and if that happens then we will be able to grow our sport so it’s pivotal to what we do.”
Although a deal is not imminent, he revealed clubs are interested in the potential of making such a significant move.
“We know it will take lots of investment from us and the clubs and owners as well but it’s a bit of chicken and egg situation as if you don’t get the best talent out there it’s difficult to get great sponsors.
“I was having a joke before saying, as usual, the clubs couldn’t decide on the answer so they’ve said to (Super League general manager) Mark Foster and myself to get our heads together and tell them what to do! We have got a bit of thinking to do over the next few weeks.”
The RFL, who recently launched a major rebrand in an attempt to become more recognisable with fans, are intent on attracting new audiences, too.
With his past experience, Draper knows there are plenty of ways to do that.
“At Wimbledon, we had the strategy of changing the Royal Box to see the likes of Bradley Cooper, Gerard Butler, David Beckham and Chris Hoy there instead,” he said, referring to the mix of famous film and sports stars now regularly seen at SW19.
“At the O2, we had the World Tour Finals with boxers, footballers models and pop stars.
“We’ve already been discussing about how we get our game to a wider audience through celebrities. Most people I’ve introduced to rugby league who come from that sort of background think it’s an amazing sport but it’s under the radar.
“A mate of mine – Chris Wolstenholme – is the bassist in Muse and he always introduces himself as ‘we’re the biggest band you’ve never heard’.
“That is quite a good thing as actually rugby league is a bit like that; it’s the best sport you’ve never heard of to some people.
“He’s a Rotherham lad Chris so, maybe with his Yorkshire roots, we might get him up here too but there’s a whole heap we can introduce.”