It remains one of Yorkshire’s most popular sports but is rugby league about to be reinvented by the father-and-son who have transformed snooker, boxing and darts? Chris Burn reports.
In the 22 years since rugby league entered a brave new era funded with £87m of Sky money and grand ambitions to take the game out of the M62 corridor and transform it into a continental competition, the sport has gone through plenty of ups and downs, along with numerous further attempts at reinvention.
But there appears to be a growing prospect that rugby league may be heading for its biggest transformation since the advent of Super League back in 1996 - which involved a switch to summer matches and the introduction of teams in London and Paris - as the Hearn family who have overhauled darts, snooker and boxing consider doing the same for another sport.
Rumours have been circulating for some time about the prospect of their company Matchroom becoming involved in rugby league and in early January, Featherstone Rovers chairman Mark Campbell called for the Rugby Football League (RFL) to appoint Barry Hearn as the game’s new chief executive.
“I believe Barry Hearn could achieve great things with our sport,” he said. “He has done so already in darts, boxing and snooker and we boast - in my view - the best spectator sport on the planet. The thought of him and his people running our game makes me hugely excited.”
But the potential for them getting involved gained fresh momentum when Barry’s son Eddie told online boxing channel iFL TV a couple of weeks later that the game was currently “in the wrong hands” and Matchroom could make a greater success of it.
“People sometimes look at sports that are struggling and think we can walk in and give it the ‘Matchroom touch’, which is a little bit of magic sprinkle that really revolutionises and turns sport around,” he said.
“We have done it in snooker, we have done it in darts of course and we have done it in boxing. People in the rugby league infrastructure look at us and see we have got an unbelievable relationship with Sky, they have turned around sports that have been flat. Could we do it in rugby league? Yeah. I believe I can do it in all sports. Maybe that is just me being arrogant.
"Rugby league is a great sport, rugby league has a huge fanbase. It is just in the wrong hands, that’s all. The world has changed, the way that you promote sport has changed completely. Anybody that hasn’t embraced the new age is finished.”
Interim RFL chief executive Ralph Rimmer said in response that the sport was “open to ideas” and would “never say never” to the idea of Matchroom becoming involved.
A brief examination of Matchroom’s history and their ability to turn niche sports into major television attractions makes clear their potential appeal to rugby league bosses. The company has been a major player in British sport since the 1970s when Barry Hearn went from being a chartered accountant to becoming the manager of aspiring snooker professional Steve Davis.
By the 1980s, Matchroom managed most of the game’s biggest stars as it became one of the most popular sports on television. From there, Matchroom branched out into boxing, with Eddie Hearn now representing the likes of Anthony Joshua, Amir Khan and Kell Brook.
In 2001, Barry Hearn became the majority shareholder in the Professional Darts Corporation which now sells out arenas across the country and has seen prize money rocket for players to the extent that the winner of next year’s World Darts Championship will walk away with £500,000.
In 2009, Barry Hearn also became the majority shareholder in World Snooker Ltd and has increased its global reach with new events launched around the world.
Last October, Matchroom launched a new ‘Multi Sport’ division. Barry Hearn, who was also chairman of Leyton Orient football club between 1995 and 2014, said at the time: “We are forever searching for new sporting events where we can improve opportunities for players and world class entertainment for fans.”
But the idea of Matchroom becoming involved has not received a universal welcome, with critics pointing out their previous successes have related to individual rather than team sports and raising concerns about whether they would be interested in developing the game at a grassroots level. Jonathan Liew, chief sports writer for The Independent, summed it up for many uncomfortable with the idea with a column asking: “Does the sport really need the cynicism and the hard sell and the puffy hype and the confected drama of big-time boxing?”
Phil Caplan, the Leeds-based host of a rugby league radio show on talkSport and co-director of the Forty20 rugby league magazine, says there are mixed opinions on the Hearns but a general acceptance that more could be done to promote the game to new fans and revitalise a sport which now produces few household names.
The first game of the Super League in 1996 saw Paris St Germain beat Sheffield Eagles in front of 18,000 fans in France and there was ambitious talk of eventually establishing sides in places like Madrid and Barcelona. But with Paris St Germain folding after two seasons and London Broncos relegated from Super League in 2014 after financial struggles, Perpignan’s Catalans Dragons are now the only club in the top division from outside northern England.
However, defenders of the Super League point to the way it has modernised the game, with clubs playing in new stadiums and the pioneering use of video referees now widely copied by other sports. Canadian side Toronto Wolfpack are now playing within the British system and aiming for promotion to the Super League, while there are hopes a New York side playing in a 25,000-seater stadium could follow in their footsteps next year. The sport’s latest television deal with Sky, running until 2021, is reported to have been worth £200m.
But Caplan says there is scope for improvement and believes there could be a way forward that suits all parties; giving Matchroom responsibility for enhancing and promoting individual events in the calendar like the World Club Challenge involving matches against Australian sides and the Magic Weekend, which sees an entire round of Super League matches all played at the same stadium.
“Look at what they have done with the crowds at the darts, the snooker, even the table tennis. They have a track record of appealing to the more neutral sports fan. You go to the darts and it is an event. People will pay £100 for a night out and you don’t have to have a strong allegiance to the sport. You want to be part of something - that is what rugby league more than anything desperately needs. All the people who know the sport absolutely love it; it is getting it out to more people."
He says much more could be done to promote the game and increasing the star power of the players - pointing to a recent advert promoting the new Super League season which featured Olympic stars the Brownlee brothers putting a group of players through a series of fitness tests while the players remained silent in the film.
“The players weren’t even named, the four Super League guys should have been the stars but the Brownlee brothers were.
“Players can be superstars at the weekend in matches but only within the confines of the sport. Even if you are not a darts follower, you will know who Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor is.
“Having got to a World Cup final and very nearly won it a couple of months ago, rugby league didn’t capitalise on that. Everybody knew when England won the Rugby Union World Cup who Jonny Wilkinson was, even if you weren’t interested in rugby union. Very few people could name the England Rugby League players, apart from maybe Sam Burgess and he has a profile from going into union.
"We are a sport which is still lacking in making the most of our greatest asset, which is the players.”
But Sheffield Eagles coach Mark Aston, whose side play in the Championship, one level below Super League, says the game’s issues go much deeper than needing to better promote the larger matches. The Eagles were forced to scrap their reserve team structure in 2016 after missing out on official academy status from the RFL.
"Somebody needs to do something or we are going to be in a mess," he says.
“We were running a successful academy and that got taken away from us. It gives less opportunities to youngsters and means less people playing the game.
“What happened to those 70 to 80 players I had to tell that the dream was over? The answer is not many are still playing.
“The other side is people are walking away from the game when they come out of Super League. A number of players I have spoken to this year have come out to find other professions instead of going into the Championship.
“It is sad people are walking away, both at the top and the bottom of the game.
“The big events are the icing on the cake. You need to start looking at the fundamental problems of the game or it won’t matter about the icing on the cake if the ingredients have gone off.
"The underlying issue isn’t Eddie Hearn. Coming up with some ideas on how to develop the sport at grassroots level is what we should be talking about. The game needs somebody to come in and take it by the scruff of the neck.”
Confusion over league restructure plans
The Super League has been through several restructures since it started in the mid-1990s - and further changes are on the cards.
In 2009, a new system saw the competition extended to 14 teams but in 2015 further changes saw the introduction of a new system where the top two leagues of 12 teams were split into three divisions of eight after 23 matches to help decide promotion and relegation issues.
A review of the structure took place last year but it was decided to stick with the current format, with the caveat that “a variety of options for future years” would remain under consideration.
Last month, the RFL’s interim chief executive Ralph Rimmer admitted it was unclear how the 2019 league set-up will look - causing uncertainty for the current season.