What the World Cup has done for Rugby League

looks back at a successful Rugby League World Cup and analyses the effect that the media had on the domestic game

Image: MichaelGT

A view of the Rugby League World Cup final at Old Trafford. Image: MichaelGT

The Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) of 2013, for many reasons, has been hailed a massive success. Not only can it be said that the tournament satisfied the wishes and hopes of people already fans of the game, but it also captured the imagination of a whole new audience.

The tournament ended with Australia lifting the trophy at Old Trafford in front of a record crowd of 74,468 that I was lucky enough to be a part of; this physically exemplified the success of the tournament. Although England’s dreams of becoming world champions did not come to fruition, the sport at a domestic level across England and the UK shall hopefully benefit massively from factors such as clever marketing and broadcasting during the tournament and, as a result, the game can only build on this success.

More accessible broadcasting was a major factor in opening up the sport to a new audience during the tournament. Before the tournament, the BBC secured the broadcasting rights of all English international rugby league until 2017 (the deal covers the 2014 and 2016 Four Nations, and part of the 2017 World Cup), sharing the broadcasting with Premier Sports. The televised result was refreshing for fans, like myself, who are used to Sky’s Eddie and Stevo.

In particular, Premier Sport’s unrivalled coverage of the tournament, with the excellent Andrew Voss as lead commentator, supported by former Kiwi international Daryl Halligan and the ever fantastic Brian ‘Nobby’ Noble, re-vitalised the game’s image, and this surely had an effect on people watching the sport on television for the first time.

But television was not the only media that felt the effect of the RLWC. Recently, broadband provider Plusnet researched the impact of the World Cup online.

The results show a clear rise in interest in rugby league. At a basic level, Google searches for the terms ‘rugby league’ and ‘Rugby League World Cup’ rocketed, particularly in the UK. Moreover, the RLWC 2013 website had to be transferred to a new server because of the unprecedented demand and interest.

Reflecting on these examples, the RLWC Media Executive Tom Coates concluded to Plusnet that “it shows that there is an appetite for big, well marketed events in the UK, whatever sport it is, if the product is marketed well and to the right people. Constant positive output combined with efforts to encourage supporters to speak positively about the event, share their hopes and express their opinions can have a huge impact.”

So, a success, but what lies ahead for domestic rugby league in the UK, in the aftermath of what RFL Chairman Brian Barwick described as the “most successful Rugby League World Cup of all time”?

From 2015, top level rugby league in the UK faces a massive shake up and restructure. Super League and the Championship will reduce in size from 14 to 12 teams, then after each team has played each other home and away, the league will split into 3 groups of 8 teams, who will play each other once; no decision on how the play-offs will work has been decided, but what is assured is the return of promotion and relegation from the end of the current season.

Image: Robert Culshaw

Rob’s view from his seat at the RLWC final. Image: Robert Culshaw

The threat of relegation and the hopes of promotion should hopefully make Super League more exciting and competitive, and although the financial threats of relegation have worried some clubs, it is generally considered a much needed step forward for the sport. This has already been achieved for the domestic game with the recent announcement of a massive broadcasting contract, for both domestic and international rugby league, with BSkyB, worth £200 million. The contract lasts from 2017 – 2021 and will include broadcasting of Championship games from 2015 and internationals from 2018.

The deal not only guarantees rugby league significant airtime, but will also benefit Super League teams, with each club having received immediate payments of £300,000.

However, the deal received significant criticism from Salford Red Devils owner Dr Marwan Koukash, who voted against the deal stating, in his idiosyncratic way: “I didn’t think it is the right one. You don’t marry the first girl you meet. You go out with them, you sleep with them, you try them, but don’t commit to the long-term relationship until you’re sure there’s no one else better.”

Aside from the Sky deal, as far as terrestrial broadcasting is concerned, the BBC, just last week, announced that it would now have a dedicated weekly rugby league programme on BBC Radio 5 Live, after its popularity covering games during the RLWC – another success for the future of the domestic game.

The Rugby League World Cup gave new life to a sport locked in the heartlands of the M62 corridor. Over the next couple of years it will become apparent what impact the tournament has had on the sport. An ever growing fan base, greater broadcasting and other factors such as Super League securing a title sponsor (in the form of First Utility), should ensure financial security and a greater interested audience for domestic rugby league in the UK.

The sport has so much to offer and, hopefully on the back of the successful World Cup, more people can appreciate it.

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