While rugby league has battled for its very existence throughout the most challenging 18 months anyone associated with the sport can ever remember, there has always been one great hope looming on the horizon. No sport relies on the income from its supporters like league does, a point emphasised by the fact that the generosity of many supporters in not asking for refunds on their season tickets last year kept some clubs afloat.
However, this significant step back to normality has not quite worked out the way many hoped it would. Since the doors were opened for fans to return to live games once again, the crowd figures have been disappointing. That was best underlined last weekend by Super League’s “Rivals Round”, when three of the biggest derbies in the game failed to attract the attendances we are used to.
The first Wigan-St Helens derby with supporters for two years drew a crowd of 16,319. Likewise, the return of spectators to the Hull derby saw around 15,000 attend. Both healthy numbers on the face of it, but we are far more accustomed to bigger crowds – even sell-outs – for those fixtures. Just before lockdown in February last year 7,200 fans watched Castleford play Wakefield: yet on Saturday evening, only 4,987 were present for a meeting of two great rivals.
When you consider that crowds in the English Football League, particularly Leagues One and Two, have shown modest increases so far this season, it is clear this is not a sport-wide issue. You also worry what sort of effect it could have on a sport already on a financial precipice. “There is a massive off-season ahead,” the Wakefield chief executive, Michael Carter, says. “It is a real worry for every club, from the top of the sport to the bottom. We have to get back to pre-pandemic crowd levels quickly.”
The challenge for rugby league is that this is a problem out of the game’s control. No other mainstream sport in this country has an older demographic of supporters, and the devastation a global pandemic has caused has left a long-lasting effect on this proud, historic game. Several Super League clubs have discovered already that as the world tries to get back to normal, some people are not quite as keen to do so.
Hull FC told the Guardian that they have heard extensive feedback from their older supporters about feeling uncomfortable being inside a stadium with 15,000 people for last week’s derby. The general message was that if they are to attend games, they will do so when it is quieter. Yes, all sports have supporters of a certain age, but the percentage of over-60s in rugby league’s support base is far higher than the likes of football and rugby union. Parts of northern England, rugby league’s hotbed, have also been hit harder with Covid than other parts of the country. “People just don’t feel safe coming out at the moment, and while we have to respect that, we have to find a way to replace their income,” Carter says.
As chilling and cold as it may sound, any sporting club will also tell you there is a perpetual, never-ending cycle of replacing supporters who are no longer with us with the next generation of young fans. Rugby league does a magnificent job – better than most sports – at interacting with its local communities and attracting youngsters to live events through amateur clubs. But amateur rugby league, and community work on the whole, has ceased to exist in any form for the last 18 months, and that has left children and young families with more free time than ever before. “People have found other things to occupy their time,” Carter says. “Crucially, they’ve found things you can do for free like going walking and having days out. We’re now the expensive option.”
Super League clubs estimate that for every 500 supporters they lose on the gate, it costs around £75,000 a year. That does not sound like much, but for a sport like rugby league, it is a sizeable chunk of the budget disappearing. With the income from the broadcast deal with Sky Sports dropping significantly next season, crowd income has never been more important. If the figures continue to stay below pre-pandemic levels, the effects will be profoundly felt across the sport.
The professional game is slowly moving its way towards a restructure in 2023, with two divisions of 10 teams the likely outcome. With 36 teams in the three professional tiers at present and all of those losing more central distribution as a result of the reduced Sky deal, stagnating crowd figures will only accelerate the loss of some of the sport’s most traditional clubs. This is now a very real issue.
Supporter income makes up around a third of a club’s revenue each and every season in rugby league. Clubs have to target the fans of the future – there has never been a bigger moment for this sport to take a step back and assess the direction of travel it is heading in. If it doesn’t, it won’t just be clubs at the bottom of the pyramid who are in danger.