Super League reform first step in '˜rescuing' rugby league, says Hull KR chief Hudgell

HULL KR chairman Neil Hudgell believes one of Super League's most pressing needs is to become 'sexy and glamorous' in the battle for viewers and improved participation levels.

Can Super League recapture its appeal?
Can Super League recapture its appeal?

The elite domestic competition has chance to maximise its potential now it has got its wish for a structure change in 2019.

Last Friday’s vote at an extraordinary general meeting involving Super League, Championship and League 1 clubs means the Super 8s are disbanded next season and the traditional one-up, on-down form of promotion and relegation will return.

Super League had been pushing for that given, in the current system, four of the dozen clubs are annually put at risk of demotion via the Qualifiers, something which has bought too much financial uncertainty.

However, with their new chief executive Robert Elstone taking the lead, and having gained greater power in decision-making having partly moved away from the RFL late last year, it is now imperative the league makes the most of the opportunities that lie ahead.

Elstone, who joined from Everton Football Club, has spoken about his desire to inject fresh ideas to ensure the sport is both more exciting to watch and more attractive to commercial partners and fans alike.

Dwindling participation levels is another issue that rugby league needs to address and Hudgell, who voted in favour of the proposals, accepts Super League must help turn that around.

“It’s a big question not just for rugby but sport as a whole isn’t it?” he told The Yorkshire Post.

Neil Hudgell, chairman of Hull KR

“How do we improve participation levels? We just get more involved in the community game and the grassroots in our own areas. Rugby league in Hull is dying on the vine.

“We start from the bottom up and professional clubs probably need to take more control of that as we’re doing in Hull. The senior clubs are looking to implement a structure that embraces the entirety of the amateur game from young kids upwards.

“But I just think the profile and boost the sport would get from having a more commercially-minded, strategically-planned marketing side is key. That’s something again that at the elite level will have a positive effect.

“People – especially young people – want to go where it’s sexy and glamorous don’t they?”

With the current broadcast deal ending at the end of 2021, some critics argue the actual competition structure was the least of Super League’s problems.

But Hudgell, whose Rovers side are currently battling for survival in the Qualifiers, countered: “Structure is important as obviously it provides the foundation on which to build commercially.

“The whole idea of these Middle Eights (Qualifiers) has brought about an instability in the game in terms of fixtures in place, signing players, season tickets and all those sorts of things.

“What the sport needs to build on is a collective goodwill to promote the brand of Super League itself which will only help the trading performance of individual clubs.

“What we have to do is create a set of trading environments where the clubs can prosper and the whole way the game is structured and presented is another big piece of work.

“The product itself. How do we improve that? There is a lot of work to be done with the commercial partners and Sky TV in particular just to reposition to what it used to be as at the minute it’s pretty staid. On a lot of occasions it’s dull, boring, meaningless. Those aren’t things you look to equate with rugby league.”

With so many lower league clubs initially against Super League’s proposals, Barnsley-born Elstone did not have an easy start to the newly-created role.

Hudgell admitted: “He’s had no honeymoon has he? He’s been put straight into the hard stuff. It’s been a baptism of fire but he’s represented the Super League clubs very, very well indeed.

“He’s delivered on what we asked him to deliver on and in appointing our own CEO this is real validation of why we did that. That’s because he’s been able to devote the time to build a platform for us to build on something for the next few years.”

The RFL have come in for criticism for the way in which the structure matter has dragged, but Hudgell maintained: “My own view is that the governing body, particularly Ralph Rimmer, and Robert have worked very well to put a package together that’s got the overwhelming majority vote.

“So I don’t think that puts them under undue pressure. Others will have a contrary view but I like to think people respect the democratic process and we can get on now and work together for the betterment of the game.”