Super League has announced Robert Elstone’s sudden resignation in a surprise move by the often criticized Executive Chairman.
The timing of the announced departure of the Super League executive is somewhat curious, with the Betfred Super League on the eve of a new season and with the game of Rugby League in the UK at a crucial phase. Super League is entering the final year of the 40 million pounds a year Sky TV deal negotiated by former RFL Chief Executive, Nigel Wood.
— Betfred Super League (@SuperLeague) February 9, 2021
Analysis: Rugby League in crisis… Again
Robert Elstone came into the sport with much hope from Super League clubs who had voted to separate from the Rugby Football League. Elstone’s reported £400,000 a year salary meant a lot was expected. However, even the most friendly observer can only view his tenure as a disaster.
Even before Covid, sponsorship and commercial revenue had decreased (down 17% from the end of 2019 accounts from 2018) whilst salaries for executives have ballooned. The TV deal will be significantly lower and the game also lost coverage of Catalan Dragons games on French TV.
A failed move for private equity funding which left Super League clubs having to give a reported £750,000 to Rothchilds, for setting up a ‘conversation’ appears to have been the final straw. So, with Rugby League in the northern hemisphere seemingly on life support, what is the way forward for the game?
Rugby League is not Association Football
The heading above needs to be carved into the arm of Rugby League executives. The embarrassing attempt to ape the outrageous executive salaries of football and governance splits without the cash has only harmed Rugby League. Covid has merely exposed the folly that Super League breaking away from the RFL was. Rugby League could have funded the entire League 1 for a year with the money Elstone received and still paid him a six-figure salary.
The first task for the game is one body to lead the direction of the sport. What should that direction be?
This year, with the 2021 Rugby League World Cup, should provide the answer. It is internationals that will save Rugby League in the northern hemisphere, not club footy. Of course, stakeholders need a strong Super League but, a club-level drive needs to be wielded to improve all national sides in northern Europe.
It remains one of the great missed opportunities of the last tv deal that money was not squirreled away to fund a modern stadium for Welsh Rugby League, in either Wrexham or South Wales. This would have created an incubation chamber for Welsh Rugby League to grow and build a competitive international team.
As well, the decision to let the Leigh Centurions into Super League with Covid lurking is understandable but keeping a second French team out and denying the sport a new rivalry in the game’s other European heartland was a huge kick in the teeth. Also, by having a clear goal that in this decade northern hemisphere Rugby League wishes to build its own annual International tournament, Rugby League can give future investors a clear guideline [if they are still interested].
How to repair the damage left by Robert Elstone
Not everything that Robert Elstone led was bad but, many strategies will leave a long-lasting stain on the game in Europe.
Toronto being let in by the RFL at League 1 (burning through cash with no commitment for Canadian players until it went pop) was a debacle. However the offer of protected status in the top flight, provided clubs meet certain criteria (minimum homegrown player numbers) and a minimum number of Internationals in the yearly calendar, can be the way forward.
The Betfred Super League is the revenue stream for the game yet it requires a longer strategy than singular directives have done. Northern Hemisphere Rugby League cannot keep waiting for Australia to bail it out. With a new French President and Robert Elstone’s resignation, the time is now to set a common goal of an international game and begin anew.
Cruelly or not, the Robert Elstone tenure was a legacy of failure. Fans and stakeholders must hope that the start of a new 2021 Betfred Super League season, and his ultimate replacement, will rewrite the narrative of the sport in the Northern Hemisphere.
The 2021 Betfred Super League season begins on Friday, March 26.
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