A decision to make the London Broncos part-time from 2022 is a disappointing one for the Betfred Championship rugby league club. It is also indicative of the sport’s current malaise.
Coming at the same time as the club wanted to relaunch a fresh future at Wimbledon’s Plough Lane, it underlines the strategic planning (or lack thereof) blighting the game. A team one might say that is on bended knee for more reasons than solidarity (see main image).
If, as seems extremely likely, they do not achieve promotion to Super League, then there will be no professional rugby league outfit between the M62 and the South of France. After 30-odd years of club rugby league in the capital, many are calling the entire idea a ‘black hole wasting money’.
What went wrong, and is there any way back from here to revive the club? Last Word on Rugby contributor Sam Drew forms his opinion on the ‘part-time’ decision taken by the Betfred Championship club.
From big time to a London Broncos part-time outfit
It’s not hard to see the appeal. Rugby league, a sport born of financial disagreements, has forever needed fresh liquidity input. So why not chance your arm on the big city lights? It’s what drove the Challenge Cup Final to Wembley all those decades ago.
At the 2013 World Cup, 38% of tickets sold were to spectators from outside the north of England. Even discounting those sold in Wales, Ireland, and France, the Wembley semi-final represented a hefty demand from those in London and the South-East [at that time].
But as is so often the case, the potential was squandered under the internal contradictions of the sport’s governing body. No additional support was provided to compensate for the distance from the heartlands or the expense of London. Constant relocations stymied any opportunity to grow roots and establish a core local fan base.
Comparisons with Australia are often facetious, overlooking the differentials in society and popularity. But a cursory glance at Melbourne, and the support that they received in the club’s infancy, provides a retrospective sense of ‘what could have been’ from the London Broncos.
As the capital of Aussie Rules football, with no prior history of rugby league, the Melbourne Storm were afforded every opportunity to succeed. They had continued financial support, way above that given to other NRL clubs. They were given salary cap exemptions (which, as Parramatta fans can attest to, they subsequently took too far). Whether or not it is the right system for British rugby league, the franchising model sans relegation, guaranteed stability.
Under the recent tutelage of Craig Bellamy, they have built a dynasty. Aside titles removed due to financial mismanagement, the side’s continued triumphs have guaranteed them legendary status.
It’s churlish to suggest that the exact outcome could be replicated in London. But there was, and still is, enough latent potential for the side to match their former Super League counterparts. The ingredients will remain, even whilst London Broncos stay part-time.
Counting the positives – Youthful enthusiasm born at London Broncos club
One aspect that London outperforms Melbourne on is youth production. Indeed, they have produced more talent than many Super League heartland clubs in recent years. The likes of Kai Pearce-Paul, Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Tony Clubb, and Mike McMeeken have all come through the Broncos system.
Whatever the future of the club side, it is imperative that the game supports these pathways for player development. It could even be said that with the relative success of fostering young talent compared to the professional side, that the resources are better diverted into community clubs.
So long as the game is not neglected in the capital – big events like the Challenge Cup are held regularly, and a pathway is afforded to professionalism – then the ‘part-time status’ news is not necessarily a hammer blow. Fans will lament the loss of the talent produced internally. But what London currently brings, both commercially and on the field, is hardly game-changing.
Becoming a London Broncos part-time club must not impact the conveyor belt of talent coming through the system though. While it’s an irony that rugby league in the capital; envisioned once as a money-making exercise, is now forced to pull in its spending.
The game would never have imagined this. It is more fitting how the game spurred a small but efficient grassroots community via the output of several heartland locations, including in the northern heartland.
Prime example: future of Broncos should follow Thunders’ bold steps
It’s ironic that just days after Newcastle Thunder announced their intentions to go full-time, London went the other way. Newcastle can be held up as a poster child for rugby league revival. Gateshead was parachuted into professionalism and the top-flight with the advent of Super League, only for the club to go down in flames (via a disastrous merger).
Slowly, they built themselves back up, establishing a solid local network of community clubs, guaranteeing financial backing, to the point that they can now take on the extra expense of a full-time squad. Thinking five to ten years into their future, that has to be the goal for London.
NB: part-time status Indicative of modern Sports financial model
Each club’s alternate reality is also representative of the times. Clubs can no longer rely on televisual or RFL benevolence. The loss of another full-time outfit is not necessarily existential of the game but, it represents the current dire straits that all professional sport faces. With the sport facing a near 40% cut in Sky TV funding, fans have fallen into one of those spasmodic but timetabled fits of pessimistic existentialism.
With Super League set to split into two flights of ten, anyone outside of the top seven in next season’s Championship faces financial ostracisation. Rochdale, Doncaster and Coventry have all been vocal as to the impact that such disastrous funding cuts would have.
For those around the world that aren’t sure of the state of Rugby League in UK, here are The CEO of one side and The Chairman of another discussing openly their lack of knowledge of what is happening regarding funds for their clubs, just weeks before the end of this season. pic.twitter.com/QjSiQsZuue
— Six_Again (@Six_Again) September 7, 2021
Yes, the London Broncos part-time status is upsetting for most. It may be seen as destructive yet, it can be put down to a combination of financial, and on-field performance factors. If London cannot secure their place in Super League 2 – and that is not guaranteed – then they could avoid the final abyss.
‘Don’t look back in anger’ – follow a path to Redemption
What is in their favour, is history and the collaborative efforts of stakeholders. Put bluntly, the ongoing survival of the franchise is partly to be from the massive effort of stakeholders, by player’s on-field deeds, and the will of the strong rugby league community.
With the example of others; like the Leigh Centurions, it is better to ‘don’t look back in anger’. The Manchester side fell to the depths of the lower leagues, before redemption of their own (in being elevated to the Super League top-tier) came to the sides rescue. It shows that it can be done!
The map towards a return to being a full-time professional organization is a long one. 2022 is the lowest step on that pathway forward. Basing themselves at the Ealing Trailfinders stadium may also be a location where the club can be inspired by what that rugby team’s progression back towards the Premiership top tier.
Through sheer effort and good management, this Broncos club can one day be the pride of London’s rugby league community yet again. Pain today might lead to a more positive foundation in the future.
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images