CHIEF EXECUTIVE Robert Elstone says Super League is looking at finalising a quota on overseas clubs allowed into the competition as it does not want to “shoot itself in the foot” ahead of its next crucial broadcast deal.
However, he maintains its stance is not “anti-expansion”, but merely a method in which to protect its value and Super League will still have the chance to adapt the number later down the line.
The subject is high on the agenda after consortiums from New York and Ottawa both made presentations to Championship and League 1 clubs earlier this month about entering the RFL in 2020.
Clubs were in principle supportive and the RFL Board is expected to make a final decision shortly as the prospect of more trans-Atlantic rugby league – on the back of Toronto Wolfpack’s introduction in 2017 – took a step closer.
Championship leaders Toronto, of course, hope to earn a place in Super League this season with the return of automatic promotion and French club Toulouse Olympique are chasing them hard in second place.
Clearly that is potentially five overseas clubs eventually aiming for what is currently a 12-club Super League.
Speaking at a media briefing in their new headquarters in Manchester’s Northern Quarter yesterday, Elstone said: “The quota is something we’re looking at.
“Ultimately Super League has the right to override whatever the rules are.
“If we are at a particular number in the competition and club X comes along and we’re at the quota, but club X is outstanding and will come with a fan base and without operational chances and with the opportunity of a new broadcast deal, then we have the right to admit them into Super League.
“The ultimate wraparound is not negative and it’s not anti-expansion and it’s important to say that.
“We need to protect the value in Super League and what we can’t be doing is diluting that value.
“If we’re not diluting that then absolutely tremendous, bring it on.
“But we need to protect ourselves and make sure we don’t end up with a competition that becomes overly skewed into non-UK clubs, which has a material impact on sponsorship values and broadcast values.
“We would be wrong to allow that to happen without protection.
“We don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot by taking a competition to market that is not appealing to broadcasters.
“If we can clearly stimulate interest from international broadcasters that’s terrific and part of the work we need to do.”
Super League’s broadcast deal with Sky runs until the end of 2021 and part of Elstone’s remit when coming into the role last year was to help drive improvement in the sport to make it a more attractive proposition when negotiations over a new contract begin.
Rule changes this season to help quicken up the sport have largely been seen as a success.
Crucially, Elstone says games are finishing seven minutes quicker.
“We’ve the same number of tackles, the same number of hits, the same amount of action and quicker play-the-balls, but in seven minutes less in terms of elapsed time” he said.
That will improve further in 2020 when another five seconds is set to be taken off the shot clock while Super League is taking on the same consultants who took care of the Premier League’s new branding, too, as they build towards next season.
These are some examples of positive developments.
On more overseas sides joining Catalans Dragons, Elstone would love to see Toulouse reach Super League to see that rivalry flourish, and he is impressed by the impact the North American entities have made.
“What New York, Ottawa, Toronto have done is create talking points and interest,” he added.
“That’s promoted a lot of media attention and attention from fans. I think the immediate thought is, ‘wow, this looks exciting, but what it does do is prompt a whole load of difficult questions.
“Is it sustainable, is it well intended, is it going to establish roots, can it be dealt with logistically, will it put any bias into the competition?
“Most fundamentally, does it grow the cake? Does it come with additional fans, sponsors, broadcast revenues?
“I’m not sure all those questions have been thought through and dealt with and I think they need to be.”
The former Everton FC chief executive added: “The game needs to grow and it needs to reach new audiences, absolutely.
“Where those audiences are is a piece of work that needs to happen, and looking at those two applications plus Toronto, I’m not sure all those questions have been properly thought through.
“The reality is we are where we are with the RFL in the sense that there’s automatic promotion and relegation.
“There’s certainly no mechanism for us to fast-track any particular team – if there’s a stellar club in one part of the world, would they have to come and play in League One?
“That hasn’t really been discussed, but what we have is that Ottawa and New York work their way through the ranks as Toronto may well do, then we deal with them at the point of entry into Super League. There are some conditions around that which are just being finalised.
“There’s an agreement between us and the RFL in principle over what that looks like.
“From my point of view I just need to make sure that all the homework has been done on these clubs.
“I still think the jury is out on sustainability, intent, logistic capability, impact on the competition’s integrity, and the size and impact on the overall cake. That’s not to be negative about it – we need to be the opposite and welcoming it.
“But we need to have our eyes wide open over where it’s going to take us.”