Born out of greed: 25 years of Rugby Super League

Iain Dalton, Leeds Socialist Party

Like football today, the formation of the Rugby Super League 25 years ago was driven by the commercialisation of sport. And like the birth of the football’s Premier League, it was a product of the growing influence of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire over sport.

A war over TV rights for Australian Rugby League resulted in Murdoch running a rival competition to the official league in 1997, and Murdoch’s News Corp got joint control of the unified competition that followed.

As part of this battle, Murdoch signed up rugby league clubs in England to a new competition. Greedy club executives jumped at a £77 million deal, which would have forced local rival clubs to merge, and no relegation or promotion for at least two years.

But these proposals saw a massive backlash against mergers, with pitch invasions and protests. Three weeks later, the mergers were off, and an increased offer of £87 million was accepted.

The change to a summer season has led to a faster paced game, played in more pleasant weather for spectators. Average attendance has increased from the old winter season, reaching a peak of 10,338 in 2008. Although, this went into decline – a combination of both the squeezing of working-class incomes, and a six-year trial of franchising, which removed promotion and relegation.

While Super League has no owners from the Gulf States, former USSR or US, profit still drives the game. When deciding not to readmit Toronto Wolfpack for the 2021 season, an ‘independent’ review concluded that it “added no material incremental revenue to Super League”. When Leigh Centurions were admitted in their stead, the first criteria they were judged to: “Enhance the commercial value of the Super League to broadcast and sponsorship partners.”

Likewise, the recent 2021 world cup cancellation was driven by the self-interest of the wealthier Australian and New Zealand club competition, under the guise of concern about player safety under Covid. However, they never consulted player unions, who, aware of the potential risks, still wanted to take part.

Rugby league was born out of attempts to stop working-class sportsmen being excluded from the highest levels of rugby. But, like all sports under capitalism, it has remained dominated by the club owners who decided their commercial interests were best served by breaking from the rugby-union hierarchy. Like in wider society, the interests of predominantly working-class fans and players can only be fully served by them taking democratic control over the game.

Clubs and the game should be democratically controlled by elected representatives of fans, players and staff. They could decide to share out TV money more evenly throughout all levels of the game, and return to the system of pooling 15% of gate receipts to be shared throughout the league.

Stadiums should be owned by local authorities, and the media companies should be nationalised under the democratic control of the working class, so vulture capitalists can’t ruin our game again. This way, Rugby League could be expanded by cultivating the grassroots game, in the sport’s heartlands and elsewhere.