Rugby League: time to look at Union for expansion tips

Rugby League: time to look at Union for expansion tips

With the Toronto adventure seemingly on life support, rugby league is looking another failed attempt at expansion. The 13 man code could learn a lot from rugby union.

Unlike their league cohorts, rugby union has had little trouble expanding with Major League Rugby growing rapidly in the United States. The Top League in Japan doing the same. Union has little trouble garnering worldwide interest.

Even in football dominated countries such as Argentina, Georgia, and Italy, rugby union has become arguably the second most popular sport there. The appeal of the 15 man code has seen the game expand into a global power.

Rugby League: a history of expansion troubles

The same can’t be said for their rugby league neighbours.

Rugby league is usually associated with the North West of England and despite popularity among the working classes it hasn’t gained global interest. Aside from the Catalans Dragons, who have enjoyed a strong tenure in Super League there has been little global appeal. Rugby league failed expansion attempts.

A number of failed ventures have seen interest outside the north-west of England dwindle in recent years. Expansion into France in the late ’90s came to a screeching halt as Paris-Saint Germain went bust due to a fiasco in regards to employment contracts.

The Celtic Crusaders endured a similar experience before falling out of Super League within three years, and ceased to exist years later.

Despite getting off to a good start, Super League’s expansion into London turned sour when the London Broncos (see main image) were left on the verge of administration in 2013, and lost the majority of their squad. However, they managed to stay afloat and even returned to the Super League for a season in 2019.

With the future uncertain for the Toronto Wolfpack, who knows whether they will return in 2021. But regardless of what happens rugby league has failed to capitalize on a golden opportunity for expansion.

League could learn from their union neighbours

The union model is there to see. 

It isn’t easy putting a number of teams from different nations in one league. Super League knows this, however, rugby union has made it work throughout the world. The Northern Hemisphere’s Guinness Pro14 is arguably the best example when it comes to expansion.

The competition takes place across two separate continents and in different timezones. The original Celtic League managed to make then logistics work to expand further into Europe to accommodate the Italian teams into the league.

The league then managed to introduce South African teams, the Southern Kings, and the Cheetahs. This was achieved by restructuring the league into two different conferences and the competition was boosted financially as a result.

Kurt Coleman of Southern Kings clears the ball during the Guinness Pro14 match at Parc y Scarlets, 2017. (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

At the time of publishing, travel restrictions due to Covid-19 and liquidation see both those South African teams excluded from the current 2020/21 championship yet the future suggests that Pro Rugby will expand into a PRO16, when the four ex-Super Rugby franchises join the league in 2022.

Super Rugby is another key development of teams brought together to the benefit of the professional game, which rugby league must learn from. Originally designed in 1996 with 12 sides, it brought South African rugby successfully back into the Southern hemisphere competition. And it would grow from there.

Super 12 expands into 14, and then into Super 15

That grew into 14 teams when in 2006 side from Western Australia and a Free State team out of South Africa brought expansion to the rugby-parlance. Well received, and this led to further growth into Super 15, when an expansion side was developed in Melbourne. It saw an alternate South African franchise of the Southern Kings, exchanged with Free State.

This example was one where a community demand resulted in a needs-based side developed. Very much the same as Football has seen in the United States. The MLS expansion is one other sport, which rugby league could learn plenty from.

Provided consumer demand is present, that the logistics work, and that television distribution is in place, these are all critical factors for Super League to consider.

The model is there, they just simply need to design it, and promote it to the right market now – or in the foreseeable future.


“Main photo credit”
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