As Rugby League’s Super League season continues in earnest, a media report has suggested that the Rugby Football League (“RFL“), the governing body for Rugby League in the UK, would support any current Super League clubs that expressed a desire to move from their current well-established locations and relocate to other cities in the UK or, potentially, further afield.
The report states that “expressions of interest” have been received from cities, in both England and abroad, who are enamoured by the idea of inheriting an existing Super League franchise. Indeed, the RFL is reported to have informed clubs that, should an existing club wish to do so, they would be willing to consider any application to move.
In the vast majority of sports in the UK, the idea of an established team choosing to relocate is a relatively novel one and would, to put it bluntly, be anathema to many.
Sports team frequently form an important part of local communities, serving as a focal point for family and friends alike to meet, and with allegiances to particular teams often passed down the generations. Given these deep cultural ties, which are often intertwined with a particular geographical location, any decision to uproot a team from its traditional home and relocate it elsewhere is likely to meet with fierce resistance.
A prime example is that of Wimbledon Football Club. With the all too familiar spectre of financial ruin looming over the London-based side, the club relocated to Milton Keynes in September 2003, approximately 56 miles northwest of the club’s traditional home district in South London, where it had been based since 1889. A year later, Wimbledon was granted permission from the Football League to rename itself Milton Keynes Dons. The move was acrimonious to say the least and the fact that some football fans still disparagingly call the now Milton Keynes-based side “Franchise FC” provides an indication of the general enmity and cultural resistance in the UK to a sports side moving away from its traditional geographical home.
The same of course cannot be side for a number of sports in North America, which is more accustomed to the franchise model. For example, the NFL side the San Diego Chargers announced plans to move to Los Angeles in January of this year, whilst the Arizona Cardinals have previously plied their trade in Chicago, St Louis and Phoenix. That is not of course to say that all NFL teams have a peripatetic existence, with many sides having never moved location since their inception, a prime example being the Wisconsin-based Green Bay Packers.
When considering the general resistance in the UK to the relocation of sports team, if the above-mentioned reports are indeed true, what could be behind the RFL’s support for established clubs upping sticks for pastures new?
It may be that the RFL has looked to Rugby Union and seen how a change of scenery can assist a club. The club once known as London Wasps, which was formerly based in several locations in and around London, started playing its home games at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena in December 2014 and have now been re-branded to simply Wasps. And, despite the move proving controversial amongst fans, the new side is prospering at its new home having previously come perilously close to entering administration.
More importantly, the RFL’s current stance needs to be considered in the context of its long-established goal of expanding the game of Rugby League beyond its traditional heartland in Northern England, or indeed, the M62 motorway, near to which many of the professional and semi-professional sides are based.
The RFL’s reasons for doing so are both logical and laudable: whether that is to expand the playing base, in order to increase amateur participation in the sport and potentially unearth any “hidden gems” that would otherwise not get the chance to play Rugby League, and to increase commercial interest in the game.
Even prior to the inaugural Super League season in 1996, the RFL’s preferred method of pursuing its long-term strategy has been to consistently expand the top three divisions of the league structure by supporting the introduction of so-called “expansion teams” from locations that have been, for the most part, outside of Northern England.
The introduction of these expansion teams have met with varying degrees of success. Both the London Broncos and Paris Saint-Germain competed in the heady early years of Super League and, whilst the former still compete in Rugby League’s second tier Championship competition, the latter only lasted for two seasons before ultimately being dissolved, with the club unable to generate the attendances required to pay the squad (which included a number of expensive Australian imports) and fund the regular travel to England to fulfil their fixtures.
Other high-profile attempts to introduce new sides include that of Celtic Crusaders, the Wales-based side that, having climbed the league structure and gained entry to the Super League in 2009, eventually fell into administration in November 2010 and was subsequently liquidated in September 2011 (not before six of their Australian players were asked to leave the country by the UK Border Agency because of visa irregularities). A more successful example is that of the Perpignan-based Catalan Dragons, with the Dragons (the only current Super League side based outside of Northern England) consistently robust competitors in the top tier.
What seems clear is that the RFL is not adverse to a side, who may be struggling to attract sufficient crowds in their current location and struggling to secure a viable long-term future, moving cities in order to ensure they survive. The recent financial travails of Bradford Bulls no doubt lend this added perspective.
Indeed, a new Toronto-based side, the Toronto Wolpack, is currently enjoying its inaugural season in British rugby league, commencing in League 1, the third tier competition, but with the ambition of reaching the Super League within 5 years. The Wolfpack have the financial backing in place to ensure that each side English team will travel for free when they travel to Canada and have assembled a strong squad to achieve their stated aim of reaching the top tier by 2022. Moreover, with reports emerged in January that a Florida-based consortium was interested in following the Wolfpack’s lead and seeking entry into League 1, this could be a new dawn for Rugby League
With North America increasingly viewed as the next big market for the expansion of Rugby League, and with the RFL’s desire to expand the sport, a transatlantic flight might just become as routine for Rugby League sides as a trip down the M62…