Reframing the Future

Imagine for a moment, that a sport has decided the future lies in abolishing its traditional clubs, deeply rooted in their communities, and replaced them with new teams. Nobody really cares about the new sides so a population, previously so passionate about that sport that in some ways it even defined their nationality, begins to lose interest and the game goes into a steep decline.

Now, instead imagine a sport which has established a hugely popular national pyramid system enabling even a pub side to dream of progression through about a dozen leagues into the highest levels of the professional game. Although a park team is unlikely to get close to the top, think of the increased support, sponsorship and press interest generated by climbing even one or two divisions.

Keeping in mind all those imaginings, let?s turn to the reality of the recently announced proposals for yet another Super League Strategy. Cut out the usual aren?t-we-so-wonderful, self-congratulatory ego-fest, the vague waffle about expansion and various other secondary issues and we are left with one central point, always assuming that Murdoch is still willing to stump up the cash: from the next TV deal in 2009, ESL is going to be operated as a franchise system.

The ESL?s proposals, such as they are, can be examined through the links at the end of this article. For now, I am not concerned with the details. Besides, other than the ESL exercising absolute power over who is in and who is out of the competition, the strategy is somewhat short on specific proposals and over the next four years anything might happen. Indeed, on past form, the RFL might even quietly abandon the ?strategy? altogether. Here, I am rather concerned to address franchising and to suggest some of its possible implications.

We?ve been here before, at the time of the original ESL debate in 1994, when Maurice Lindsay saw franchises as the key to future expansion. The original proposals involved amalgamating existing sides. Although that is not yet being suggested, once the franchise principle has been accepted it?s only a matter of time before amalgamations are resurrected to make room for expansion outside the traditional strongholds. The arguments which forced the RFL was forced to retreat in the face of intense popular opposition are still valid. RL is not a mere entertainment which can be treated like any commodity in the market place. It?s a way of life and our great strength, which has ensured survival through some very hard times, has always been the game?s deep roots in the community. Pull up those roots you seriously weaken the game.

The basic point about franchises is that they operate through tightly centralised control. The ESL will become a completely closed shop with entry by invitation only, thereby spelling the end of promotion and relegation and cutting adrift completely the National Leagues. Many NL clubs have been kept alive only by the dream of regaining their top flight status, arbitrarily denied them because they happened to be going through a bad patch when ESL was created. Being denied entry to ESL as NL Division 1 champions has already condemned Dewsbury and Keighley and Hunslet to a lingering death and others will no doubt follow if ESL entry is closed off. Remove the dream and you remove the reason for the lower divisions? continuing existence, something the likes of Bradford and Wigan should note in view of their relatively recent experiences of relegation.

So long as ESL is drawing in the crowds and sponsorship, does it matter if the games? community roots are ripped up or that supporters of lower league teams can no longer dream the impossible dream of being in the ESL? I?d suggest that it does. Since RL is the sum of all its parts

The first paragraph in this piece is in fact my interpretation of the sorry state of Welsh Rugby Union, caused largely by ripping the game free from it?s community roots and replacing historic clubs with new commercially-driven entities to which the fans? gut loyalties have not been transferred. The second paragraph describes a significant reason for English soccer?s phenomenal recent rise in popularity. It?s very unlikely that a park side will ever make the Premiership, but Wimbledon dreamed the dream and progressed up the pyramid to the Premiership.. Similar dreams have helped keep our game alive despite all the odds. We would do well to think carefully before destroying them.

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