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Rugby league: In League with big business?
AS TOP-flight football becomes more and more under the control of ridiculously wealthy individuals and businesses, we can learn from the creation of another of England's most played and supported sports.
Rugby League was born out of the northern working class' desire to play sport without fear of reducing their meagre incomes or putting their jobs at risk. By the late 19th century the three major British sports had already begun to form league structures, with football even forming a professional body in 1885.
But sports, whose rules were largely formed and made official by the upper class, were mostly amateur. This prevented the working class from taking a full role. Workers faced long working days, poor nutrition and often did hard physical jobs. Organised sport at a high level was often left to those with the money and lifestyle to support training sessions and regular matches.
In rugby, increasingly popular in the north, especially around West Yorkshire and Lancashire, a generation of talented working-class players had become frustrated at being forced to miss games because of work or to miss work through injury.
The owners of northern rugby clubs were forced to reflect this anger. So when the southern-dominated Rugby Football Union refused to allow working players to be compensated for missing work due to rugby the northern clubs broke away, forming what became the Rugby League.
Its creation reflected the working class' growing power. RL became, for the northern masses, a rallying point and an example of the pride felt in watching fellow workers allowed to perform at their best - a sensation far from that felt watching football's Premier League today.
The revenue game
Bearing its history in mind, the formation of the top-flight British Super League, is a betrayal of the values that the sport held on to for most of the 20th century. Super League was formed in 1996, bringing with it higher TV revenues but imposing some serious changes in the game.
One was the shift to a summer season which, due to matches being played on firmer ground, made the game much faster. This necessitated ever fitter, more superhuman players, generally limiting the playing of the sport at a high level to those with a naturally large frame and powerful physique.
Also negatively, it led to cheap US-style commercialisation of the sport, with cheerleaders and silly name changes. Historic teams such as Bradford Northern and Wakefield Trinity became Bradford Bulls and Wakefield Wildcats.
The new Super League, trying to draw in a new rugby league market, included 'expansion' teams in areas with no RL traditions, such as northern France and London. Neither fared well financially nor drew in supporters.
The economic calamities didn't stop there. In 1999 the RFL reduced the number of top-level teams, offering clubs a £1 million bribe to merge. This was taken up by teams struggling financially. Hull Sharks and Gateshead Thunder merged, as did Huddersfield Giants and Sheffield Eagles, robbing communities of local teams.
The latest development is Super League's franchise system, imported from the US sports world. It removes the threat of relegation, thereby guaranteeing TV revenues and encouraging greater investment in clubs. Yet the criteria for entry to the franchise are mostly financial - how well the team plays or their fan base are secondary considerations.
The spectre is there of RL becoming like the football Premier League. Already a few big teams tend to dominate the league, while more fans are priced out of watching their local teams play (adult ticket prices increased dramatically under the Super League).
Top RL players are still closer to their communities than in football; the sport has retained its working class fan base. Leeds Rhinos captain Kevin Sinfield visited the Yorkshire Post strikers' picket line last month.
But rugby league has degenerated, aided by the profit-hungry league owners and media backers. This reinforces the need for democratic planning of the sport by representatives from the local areas, supporters' groups, players and coaches.
Ian Slattery and Iain Dalton
In The Socialist 15 April 2009:
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