This is something I’ve wanted to write about for a while, and thinking about for even longer. It’s a hot topic in Rugby League circles, it feels like it always has been, and it is as relevant as ever in 2013.
There are three main issues – (1) Promotion/Relegation or Licensing, (2) How many teams should be in the league, (3) How the playoffs should work. I have an opinion on all three, but I don’t really like just going with my opinion, I like looking at the numbers too.
The first time I ever considered the structure of sports leagues was in my undergraduate dissertation. Rugby League only played a minor role – the open structure of European Football leagues was compared to the closed American sports leagues. The main thrust was a more competitive league is better supported and more economically successful – these assumptions were deemed reasonable based on a review of the extensive literature on the topic. My previous study can inform the issues raised above – mostly so for issue (1) which I see as the biggest consideration facing the game’s administrators, though maybe not the most difficult.
Competition can be broken into three areas – short-term competition of individual matches, medium-term competition within a season, and long-run competition over a number seasons. A lot of short-run measures can be complex and time consuming, but a very basic number to demonstrate how competitive games are is the average winning margin (Ave. WM) – the lower this figure is, the closer individual games really are. Medium-term competition is conventionally shown by win-percent ratios (WPR) – a full explanation is given if you follow the link to my old work above, but basically the lower the number the closer the season has been between the top and bottom teams. Long-term competition can be measured by any standard measure of inequality or a simple concentration analysis of the number of teams that win titles in a given period – it’s been a long time since I’ve thought about gini-coefficients so I’ve just done a simple concentration analysis and converted the data into a comparable figure where basically the closer to 0 it is, the fewer teams have won the titles available (or finished bottom as the case may be). In this measure, closer to 1 suggest more competitive balance then closer to 0.
The following table summarises the data I’ll be referring to throughout:
It shows data for different time periods and league structures. The reason for a starting point of 1981 is because this is when extensive data is available – I’ve taken the raw data straight from the brilliant rugby league resource that is Rugby League Project – I urge you to visit it as your first port of call whenever researching Rugby League.
I’ve compared all the data from the 1980-81 Championship season to the 2012 Super League season – a total of 33 years, 15 of which have included play-offs and the grand final and 26 of which featured relegation (or the threat of relegation) to at least one club – pre-Super League the number of teams varied between 12 and 16, the number of teams relegated each season could be as high as four, two years had no relegation due to league restructure – during Super League league size has been 12 or 14 teams, with one normally facing relegation but not always being relegated, until 2008 when the league was restructured to the current three year licensing system that came into effect from 2009 where a league place isn’t just based on on-field factors. The data is open to criticism simply because I only have small sample sizes to draw conclusions from, but I’m just using what is available.
My basic assumptions are fans want to see closely contested high-scoring matches, in tightly contested league seasons, with no one team dominating over a number of seasons – fans want some uncertainty over the outcome of matches, seasons and title winners. Other factors are relevant to demand too and need to be touched on as attendances are considered independently to uncertainty of outcome – club’s history, location, ticket prices and wider economic conditions would be expected to influence demand.
Licensing vs. Promotion/Relegation
I’ll start with the big one first. Licensing was supposed to bring stability to clubs, see Super League full of shiny and safe modern stadia and see more young British (and French) talent come through the ranks. The push for greater uncertainty of outcome and competitive balance would come from an extended play-offs and the desire to have competed well enough to earn a new license at the end of each three year cycle. The theory is teams have a little more stability so can develop a stronger squad without a boom or bust arms race style approach that might happen if you only have one year to build your team. It was somewhat radical when compared to the tried, tested and traditional promotion and relegation we see across most major British and European sports leagues, though not quite the ‘closed’ franchise structure of American leagues or the NRL.
We’re all used to promotion and relegation. It’s traditional, which means some people simply think it’s better regardless. It works pretty well in football, Britain’s top team sport, and a lot of league fans think our sport is somehow comparable to football so the system is the best one. The argument for competitive balance comes from the idea that all teams will work harder to avoid the dreaded drop, meaning the final league situation will see all teams having a closer spread of the points available. There is a suggestion poorer teams will be willing to spend more on talent to help them avoid the drop, meaning team strength would be more equal.
Now, we haven’t seen the kind of off field stability or development we would want during licensing. Wakefield, Crusaders, Bradford and Salford have suffered serious financial troubles and the bad state of Super League finances has been given lots of press exposure. St Helens and Salford have moved into shiny new stadiums since licensing began. Others have seen some improvements in facilities, but there are still a number of clubs with outdated stadiums. On that front you would say things haven’t had the success that would have been hoped. There is a major mitigating factor here – the financial crisis that has hit the world since 2008 has been felt acutely in the already struggling heartland towns in northern England. This is bound to impact on incomes and loan possibilities for league clubs. Also, it’s fair to note financial troubles are nothing new. Oldham, Gateshead and Widnes are all teams who suffered serious financial hardships following spells in the Super League.
Despite the financial troubles, attendances are as high as they’ve ever been for the much maligned regular season fixtures – tell these fans they mean nothing! Only 2007 has seen higher average crowds than 2012 and for the licensing period crowds are 16% higher than the average for the whole Super League period. The years where there was no threat of relegation see crowds averaging 26% higher than where there was this threat. Better stadiums may have helped some, but this figure suggests fans aren’t turned off by the lack of promotion and relegation.
During the Super League years, there is nothing between the figures for points per game and winning margins whether there was relegation as a threat or not. Pre-Super League both figures are lower, but a different scoring system until 1983 and winter conditions could explain some of this difference. Its fair to say on average it doesn’t matter if there is a threat of relegation when it comes to closeness of games.
You would expect the gap between the top and the bottom during promotion/relegation years to be smaller because of the incentives to avoid relegation. Pre-Super League, its fair to say seasons were relatively quite competitive – 1.990 is lower than the average for the whole period of 2.067. However, during Super League the closest seasons have been where immediate relegation out of the league wasn’t a threat. All five years from 2008 are below the overall average – five of the eight Super League seasons this feat applies to. The average for 2008-2012 of 1.928 is notably lower than 1996-2007 (2.228) when relegation was a threat. In fairness, this promising situation for medium-term competition has been seen from 2006 onwards, so started when relegation was in place.
Long-term, we’ve seen a more even distribution of League Leaders winners and wooden spoon ‘winners’ since promotion/relegation was scrapped. This reflects favourably compared to the overall averages also. Leeds dominance in play-off situations and the big one itself at Old Trafford means the Super League Champions title hasn’t been widely shared, but that isn’t much different to what has been seen before. Statistically speaking, a play-off system does introduce greater randomness to the probability of particular teams winning the title, so Leeds should be credited for what they’ve done in the play-offs, even if you can knock them for the inconsistent showings in the regular season – the odds would suggest they shouldn’t have won five of the last six finals like they have done.
One more area to touch on is the amount of overseas players. One hope for licensing was that the amount of average overseas players filling Super League pitches would reduce. To look into this fully would have been incredibly time consuming and not worth the effort for a blog piece quite frankly, so what I’ve done is look at a few seasons (2002, 2007 and 2012) to get some sort of indication at how things have gone in this regard. The table below summarises what I found – overseas players are categorised as players born outside of Britain or France, the data wasn’t perfect but this is just for indication so I’m happy with the analysis to this end.
The suggestion is during promotion/relegation we saw higher numbers of overseas players. We’re now seeing more British and French players across the league. This effect of licensing appears to have paid off, though again, other factors could be partly responsible (e.g. economic conditions, exchange rates, increases in NRL salary cap). In 2007 before licensing, on average, more than 6 players in every match day 17 was born overseas. Some would be able to represent the European teams by now, but its still a hindrance to the important development of young talent. This number is notably lower in 2012, when less than a third of players come from overseas.
One interesting insight is the number of overseas players is typically higher outside of the playoffs than it is for teams making them. In 2002 playoff teams fielded 30% overseas players, compared to 36% outside the top 6. In 2007 it was 33% in the top 6 and 41% in the bottom 6. In 2012, the 8 playoffs teams had only 25% overseas players and the 6 non-playoff teams fielded 35% overseas players. That suggests the general quality of overseas players we’re seeing hasn’t been very high. The best situation is to have a smaller number of higher quality overseas talent and combine this with homegrown talent, brought through the system if possible – Leeds being the example with title wins in 2007 and 2012 after fielding the lowest and 2nd lowest overseas numbers respectively in the regular seasons.
So, if anything, the stats show Super League is more competitive and equal with licensing than it was with promotion/relegation. Less overseas players are taking places away from homegrown talent and some stadiums have seen improvement. Economic stability and league wide improvement of facilities hasn’t been seen. Attendances are up and I’ve read viewing figures are likewise up, but there are teams that still need to build crowds. Basically, I think Licensing hasn’t gone far enough. Informed by my previous work, I think we need to close the league fully. Set strict entry criteria to the start up and enforce this. Make clubs buy into the league and share revenues more equally.
The obstacle is tribalism and history. Previously, attempts to force mergers have been met with resistance and controversy but under the new system clubs may have to consider that if they don’t satisfy criteria independently. Many will fear the cutting off of the lower clubs and some breakdown in the rugby league community as a result. I’m not saying closing the league membership means permanent exile from the elite level for other clubs though, there should be ways for new/more clubs to potentially see Super League play, but not in the current format that is basically extended promotion/relegation period that gives clubs outside Super League a degree of false hope of license based promotion – results so far suggest RFL resistance to mess with the clubs already there regardless of results on criteria. There is nothing to strongly say clubs like Hull KR, Castleford and Wakefield are more deserving or capable of succeeding than Leigh, Halifax or Sheffield for example. But more on the future vision below…
How many teams?
Although this is also a massive issue and a very big decision would need to be made, a decision that the RFL will fear a massive backlash over from within the sport, I don’t have as much to say on it as the first issue.
The main decision is really 14 or 12 teams. Pre-Super League a number of seasons had 16 teams at the top level, but since the move to summer there have been 12 or 14 teams. Other than 1999, it has been 12 teams when we had promotion/relegation and 14 teams since the 2009 move to licensing.
Looking at the numbers will bring a similar conclusion on competitive balance as the discussion above. This is because the licensing years are the 14 team years too, 1999 aside (which wasn’t a very competitive year as it happens – it has the worst win percent ratio of any year looked at). The peak year for Super League in closeness of the league table was 2007 (WPR of 1.449, 2nd in all years looked at). The average winning margin was also relatively low – the figure of 15 being 2nd best in the summer rugby years. This was a 12 team year, though on average the 14 team years from 2009-2012 fare better than the 12 team years for competitive balance. A larger sample size for 12 team years means more chance of outlying results, both good and bad.
Crowds also peaked in 2007. Though they have averaged higher in the 14 team era, signs were good in the 12 team era from 2004 onwards. A dip from 2007 and 2008 was actually seen in 2009-2011, before a good jump in 2012. The positive pattern of average attendances before the switch to 14 teams means this doesn’t get a significant thumbs up over the 12 team option.
The main drawback of the 14 team league is the feeling that there just isn’t enough money and talent to go around, especially with overseas imports reducing in numbers and sponsorship availability waning. I do think these factors outweigh the impact of greater competitive balance in this debate. Despite the numbers I’ve highlighted suggesting 14 teams is a decent option, I think a temporary return to 12 teams in my closed league would allow the opportunity to give greater stability, with the league then looking to increase numbers as finances for the sport improve.
How should the playoffs work?
There have been three main playoff systems in the Super League – 5 teams, 6 teams and 8 teams. The first two saw an easier route to the Grand Final for the League Leaders winners that the latter method. It’s felt that the 8 team format doesn’t give enough advantage to the team topping the league ladder – they could end up playing three playoff games and lose the advantage of playing the weakest team in the semi-final draw. Rather than making fans see the playoffs as having a more open feel to them allowing for more upsets or shocks, a team winning two years in a row from 5th place has made fans feel the system devalues the regular season – maybe because the same team has been the one to pull off the feat though.
Higher average winning margins actually suggest the 8 team format is producing less competitive playoff games. With it being the much hyped ‘business end’ of the season, you’d expect closer games than the regular season. You still see this in the 8 team format, but the winning margins are higher than before – maybe because you have teams that finished in the bottom half of the table in the post-season.
Average attendances are also down, quite notably actually from 13,385 in the 6 team years to 10,041 in the 8 team format. This suggests the fans don’t enjoy this playoff format as much as those before.
The 6 team format was the best attended and produced the closest outcomes. There was still some opportunity for upsets, but the top team was given a bit more advantage than the 8 team format gives and teams had played less playoff games to get to the final so players would theoretically have more to give.
The facts suggest a return to the 6 team format. In the closed 12 team league I’m proposing this would make sense anyway – certainly 8 teams wouldn’t work, and 5 teams maybe just doesn’t keep the playoffs open for as many teams for a competitive run in to the regular season (a far higher average win percent ratio was seen in the 5 team seasons than 6 teams, despite relegation as a threat).
From the above consideration I think a change to a properly closed league with strict initial entry requirements that consider history but focus on current performance, facilities, future plans and potential for development is the way to go. Clubs who are hesitant to consider progressive ideas should be cut adrift, and clubs that have very little potential to ever compete at the highest level should be strongly encouraged to tie themselves in with the Super League clubs and follow a different business strategy.
Start this off as a 12 team league with a 6 team playoff, but aim for growth to 14 teams with a 6 or 7 (if a sensible one can be devised) team playoff format after a few years of consolidating, with an end goal after a number of years growth and development of a 16 team competition split into two conferences of 8 with some inter-conference play and separate playoffs of 4 teams each, winner from each side competing the final. Instead of playing all teams twice, you would play the seven teams in your conference home and away, play four home and four away from the other conference (alternating seasons in a 6 Nations style), leaving room for the Challenge Cup and development of more representative game opportunities, without potential burn out of the top players. If you keep a ‘Magic Weekend’ you could play the team that finished in the corresponding position in the other conference, making this a more even playing field for all teams than the ‘derbies’ format. How teams would be allocated (along with who to cut when it drops to 12, this will be the RFL’s toughest decision) and what you would call the conferences would be a matter for the time it starts and for this to become a reality the game would have to find a lot more money. Maybe if we had a Dr Koukash for every club…
Of course, the fans of the game will need to modernise too. They need to see the future of the game as more important that cherishing the history of their own club. Why a fan can’t follow two clubs or support the game wider than just one club I don’t understand – you can have your Super League club and your semi-pro club. The bitterness felt by some fans towards larger clubs needs to be lost, although the clubs with ambition and potential that currently sit outside the Super League should be given equal opportunity to gain entry to the new elite level competition at start up and will have the chance to prove they would offer value as an expansion team. The fans will have a big part to play in that process as they contribute significantly to club revenues and so the ability of the club to compete.
One can dream.
Original Source: Structure of Super League
Big sports fan (Wigan Warriors, Manchester United, Pittsburgh Steelers, Lancashire County Cricket Club, St. Johnstone). Walking enthusiast.