Super League now strong enough to expand

AS the debate continues over whether Super League should increase to 14 clubs, chief executive Robert Elstone believes one related question has already been answered: that there are enough good players to cover such a rise.

Key encounter: Victory for Wakefield coach Chris Chester, left, meant relegation for Danny Ward, right, and his Broncos.
Key encounter: Victory for Wakefield coach Chris Chester, left, meant relegation for Danny Ward, right, and his Broncos.

With ambitious overseas clubs Toronto Wolfpack and Toulouse Olympique challenging to get into the top-flight for 2020, and London Broncos so competitive before their final night relegation, there is plenty of merit in extending the competition from 12 sides.

Clearly, it is not as simple as that; the chief executives and owners in charge at the dozen current clubs will not fancy splitting the annual central pot of around £22m a further two ways.

That would cost them the not inconsiderable figure of approximately £250,000 each per year.

Still, when the current broadcast deal expires at the end of 2021, it is likely to be something that will be explored.

One traditional nagging concern has been that there is simply not enough talent to spread around 14 clubs but Elstone believes London’s performances in 2019 have perhaps helped explode that myth.

Having gained promotion against the odds, Danny Ward’s side went on to win 10 games, and finished level at the foot of the table with Hull KR, only going down on points difference.

No side has ever been demoted in the summer era with as many points and – despite their ultimate fate – London impressed.

“It’s part of an ongoing debate that we do have – and must have – in regards to the ultimate size and format of Super League,” explained Elstone.

“The reality is two more teams require central funding to prosper or to compete in that league.

“At the minute, we’re sharing a pot of money out between 12 clubs.

“To share that same pot between 14 inevitably dilutes that, and if you’re diluting that that’s money not being invested in players, development and putting out the best possible product.

“So that is a challenge for us. Whether the new TV deal is part of an expansion, it’s something we absolutely should consider.

“But you would expand on the basis that those new clubs are adding commercial value to the competition and bringing something to the competition – new eyeballs, new footprints, new sponsorship opportunities.

“If they are, what you are doing is growing enough revenue to fund it.

“But one of the things we have seen this year is that one of the challenges has been has there been enough playing quality to sustain 14 clubs.

“I think what we have seen is some assurances as far as that goes.

“You’d have looked at one or two squads and thought they’d looked a bit threadbare and actually they have come up trumps.

“They’ve played well. London, for example, going down on 12 wins is remarkable and shows the quality they’ve got.

“Maybe this year we’ve seen that box being ticked in terms of playing resources for 14 teams being ticked.

“But, commercially, we have to find the extra money to make it viable.”

Of course, Super League has been as large as 14 clubs once before.

The competition was increased to that number in 2009 when licencing was introduced and promotion and relegation ended.

There were two rounds of three-year licences but – when they were disbanded in favour of the Super 8s – Super League returned to 12 in 2015.

Elstone, in his first full year at the helm, has been trying to sharpen up Super League’s image and make the brand more attractive in readiness for those broadcast negotiations.

But will losing a presence in the capital, with London back in the Championship after just 12 months, be a blow to their overall business strategy?

The 55-year-old said: “Not directly.

“We need London in Super League going forward – I believe in that – but we need a vibrant, dynamic London playing to bigger crowds in a better facility.

“That’s what we’ve got to build down there and it will take time and investment.

“Losing them right now, we’re locked into a TV deal for two more years and in that regard it isn’t going to have an impact.

“We would encourage them to be part of our future because they’re important.

“I hope they build on the momentum of 2019 because what they have is a great coach and really good players.

“They should be incredibly proud of that and if they can use it as a stepping stone to grow, then that’s terrific.

“The third-party money they generate isn’t huge and that’s always going to be a limiting factor.

“So for London to prosper we need to do something about that.

“It isn’t going to happen overnight, but we’ve got to make sure they grow incrementally.”