No I’m not deluded. Yes I know the answer to the question posed above is no! But I don’t really think that tells the full story, and I do think the two clubs that carry these place names could be a driving force in the advancement of the greatest game of all. Here’s why…starting with a little past and present, before considering the potential as well as the obstacles.
London has had a league team since 1980 when they were formed as Fulham and entered the second division. The highlights on the field up to now are a runners up spot in the 1997 Super League ladder and being the losing finalists in the 1999 Challenge Cup Final. In recent times, whist they’ve retained Super League status, the last play off appearance came in 2005 and in the 14 team era since 2009 the final league positions have been 11th, 13th, 12th and 12th and the average home attendance dropped below 3,000 (2,654) for the first time this century.
Off the field, financial question marks have been raised and it’s been felt in the heartlands that this ‘expansion’ club has been given disproportionate RFL support. The other main problem they’ve faced is finding a permanent home. Craven Cottage, Crystal Palace, The Valley, Griffin Park and Twickenham Stoop are the main locations for their various tenancies but there is a question over where they will pitch camp in 2014 and beyond.
In the early days the side was often criticised for fielding too many imports. However, in recent times there has definitely been a growth in the sport in London and we’re seeing more an more home-grown products coming through into the Super League side. The current squad has 8 players to come through the development system in the South-East and go on to make appearances for the first team. Then there are players like Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Omari Caro who have developed in London and moved on to represent other Super League clubs.
Then you have Salford. The club has a much deeper history than the London club, founded as it was in 1873. They’ve enjoyed six championship wins and a Challenge Cup victory along with a number of minor titles, although their last notable trophy win was back in 1976. In the Super League era they’ve been in and out of the league a little. They missed out on the inaugural season and have suffered a couple of relegations since then, although they’ve bounced straight back both times. 2006 is the only time they saw playoff action but they were given a license to the 14 team league in 2009 even though they had played the previous season in the Championship, finishing poorly in all four seasons since – 13th, 12th, 11th and 11th.
Off the field the club has traditionally been relatively stable. The Willows was called home for over 100 years. Local steel magnate John Wilkinson had been the Chairman and main benefactor of the club since 1982 and although the club aren’t famed for developing many players through their own system, they have shown a knack of picking up young talent from elsewhere and producing long term Super League regulars out of them (think David Hodgson, Luke Robinson and Richie Myler as great examples) or taking players near the end of a career and getting the best out of their latter years (Martin Offiah, Alan Hunte etc.).
The future should have looked bright with a move to a shiny new stadium in 2012 being a big part of their licensing success, but attendances weren’t at the levels hoped. Serious financial trouble and the real threats of winding up orders being faced by the club put everything into question and John Wilkinson and friends could no longer support the club in the financially capacity needed. On the eve of the 2013 season there were legitimate doubts over the clubs existence as proposed rescue deals fell through – until an 11th hour saviour in the shape of horse-racing magnate Dr Marwan Koukash.
From what we’ve seen so far there is no real reason for the optimism about the futures of these two franchises that I offered in my introduction. To the gloom you can add the fact that over the last four years these teams have been the worst attended in Super League. So why do I feel the future of the game could be enhanced by these clubs?
It goes without saying that London is the largest area of population in England. A population of nearly 12 million in the larger urban area (8.2 million for London in isolation) is combined with extensive transportation networks making all areas of the city accessible within good time from any other area. These are things we know. What you might not know is beyond the full-time top tier Broncos, London also boasts two semi-pro teams in Championship One in 2013 – the now established London Skolars and the new league entrants Hemel Stags. Furthermore, the London Rugby League website lists 24 amateur clubs in the London area, with a large number having numerous sides from youth teams up to open age teams.
Twickenham itself, in the Richmond upon Thames district, would only be considered the 11th biggest local market of English Super League teams – although when you half the populations of the two local districts with two Super League teams in them, it rises to a theoretical 7th place for local market. But considering the nomadic nature of the club and there being three London boroughs that alone would push it into 4th place, without considering the public transport links that more quickly than anywhere else in the country shrink the distance between districts, it shows the scope to expand a fan base should be there.
On top of the population potential, London is also the biggest media and sponsorship market in the country. The potential for growth in support, both fans and financial, is massive. If the sport could be successfully promoted in the area it would bring the money into the game that is clearly lacking as it stands. Success on the field could lead to greater interest. Development of local talent into England internationals or Super League winners could really cause a media stir that would put the sport higher up in the mainstream consciousness.
Clearly, the problems that have always exists still exist – barriers do need breaking down. Culturally, the game is seen as a northern sport. Additionally, there is massive competition from other sources of entertainment – both sporting and otherwise. This level of competition isn’t so fiercely faced in some of the traditional northern heartland towns that make up the majority of the professional teams.
How can these barriers be brought down effectively? Well one way to start is by tapping into the massive numbers of Aussie ex-pats in the London area. Market the team directly at them if you want – its a ready made market of people from a country where Rugby League is the national sport through half the year. Target fans of other sports that don’t play through the summer. Football, Rugby Union and increasingly American Football have big fan followings in the South East of England, but all have seasons that only overlap with Rugby League and have transferable qualities that fans should enjoy. Target these fans by getting plenty of advertising aimed at them when their first choice sport sees it’s season end. Intense, sustained (over years, not days) advertising and promotion to all London based sports fans could do the trick. Imagine the possibilities…
The future for Salford should be similarly exciting. They too are the only professional club in a massive drawing area. Salford alone would be 5th in the population stakes for Super League clubs (adjusted for two-team districts). Then consider that it is the only top level rugby league club in the 3rd largest urban population area in the country – Greater Manchester – then the potential increases (Wigan, although technically in the county of Greater Manchester, isn’t included in the figure for the urban area as defined by ONS). The Reds have a potential drawing population of around 2.2 million people.
Again, they face competition from other sources of entertainment, but there is no cultural struggle here. People of the north culturally identify themselves through sport and the sport of rugby league is deeply entrenched in northern sporting culture. Though no where near as popular as football, the chances are if you’re a real sports fan along the M62 corridor, you’ll know enough about rugby league to reel off a few of the big name clubs and players and you’ll tune in to the odd Super League game. Greater Manchester has the biggest urban area in the north and Salford are the only full time team that represents that area. They need to exploit that potential and sell themselves to sports fans that don’t really identify themselves with a rugby league club yet.
Another thing it now seems like they have on their side that might make things easier than London have it is money – at least that is what the new owner promises. Early signs are good. Manly squad players Liam Foran and Vic Mauro have been signed for the 2013 campaign, showing some fairly serious intent. Former Wigan and New Zealand coach Graham Lowe has been brought in to oversee international recruitment. Closer to home, rumours of strong attempts to bring Salford-born Adrian Morley and Castleford star Rangi Chase to the club have led to suggestions that the club could become the Manchester City of rugby league over years to come and get up to the title winning heights seen in the club’s past.
What Salford need to do to capitalise is to build some stability first and foremost and weather the storm that this very difficult year is likely to produce. No knee-jerk reactions in non-playing staff should be considered as this year could well be a write off. Links need to be established with the large number of amateur clubs in the local region, both to encourage a local support base and to help develop future talent. They also need to get into schools as much as possible to promote the sport and the club. Give the club a public face for supporters to catch on to outside of the immediate Salford area and give youngsters some heroes to attach themselves to.
There is another, much more challenging, route that the club may want to go down. They could, as has been speculated, look to become Manchester Rugby League Club. This could increase their appeal and level of identification with the massive potential audience, but it would likely face serious opposition from traditionalists. Typically narrow minded and nostalgic types who favour the history they’ve seen over the future they won’t get to see will oppose such an idea – both from within the club’s fairly small current fan base and those with a stake in the other clubs in the area. We’ve seen this before. When the Super League was being planned out there was talk of a Manchester RL to be formed from a merger between Salford from the west of the city and Oldham from the east, but criticism from fans, entrenched board members and the traditional media meant the prospect of the merger was rejected. Any future move like this wouldn’t be a merger, it would be a name change, but this will similarly face traditionalist opposition.
Get their acts together with the promotion and marketing of their teams, build a fan base, get positive media exposure and put some winning teams out on the pitch and we could be seeing two of the dominant forces in ten or twenty years times. The obstacles are there and they are significant, but the progress is bubbling away and the potential is massive…
Big sports fan (Wigan Warriors, Manchester United, Pittsburgh Steelers, Lancashire County Cricket Club, St. Johnstone). Walking enthusiast.