New Year's Eve is a time of reflection. A chance to look back at all the moments of the previous year. Some of those memories may bring you joy, others sadness. You may also dream about what the upcoming year could bring. As the calendar flipped over to 2019 many rugby league fans looked back on some amazing 2018 moments. One of those moments was the Catalans Dragons becoming the first non-English team to win the Challenge Cup. It was truly a historic moment and was easily the highlight of the rugby league year. It was also seen as a massive victory for the growth of the sport. Not only due to the on-field success of a French team but for the global reach the Dragons victory had. The prime example of this was when the Dragons paraded the Challenge Cup out in front of the masses at Barcelona FC’s Camp Nou. This moment resulted in an incredibly special game next year as the Challenge Cup Champion Catalans Dragons will take on the Grand Final Champion Wigan Warriors in a game at Camp Nou. What an incredibly special moment the Dragons victory was. It’s a shame it may never happen again.
The Catalans Dragons released a statement today saying that they will not be competing in the Challenge Cup this as paying the £500,000 deposit would be “irresponsible”. The Dragons will now join the Toronto Wolfpack and Toulouse Olympique in not competing for the Challenge Cup. Toronto and Toulouse refused to make the payments a lot earlier. None of the English teams were asked to pay this deposit. I thought about writing this rant when Toronto initially refused but, I thought it sounded way too angry. After collecting my thoughts I decided to hold off. I thought that perhaps the RFL will come around and correct this error, but alas I was wrong. In fact, they may have made it worse. Catalans are after all the defending champions and to not have them defend their title is just ridiculous.
RFL is asking 3 non-English teams for this £500,00 deposit to compensate for fewer tickets being sold if they make it to the final at Old Trafford. To me, this is the RFL pointing the finger the non-English teams for their own shortcomings. Specifically their shortcomings in the sales and marketing departments. The Challenge Cup is a marquee event for the RFL, and every sports league in the world should be selling out their marquee events. The RFL should be capable of selling out the Challenge Cup Final regardless of who is playing. I know that last year’s final between Catalans and Warrington wasn’t a sell-out, but that isn’t their fault. It’s the RFL’s.
The RFL should be targeting their new fans with marketing initiatives and featuring the team’s they cheer for in these campaigns and on the biggest stages. They should not be catering to the small pocket in the North that despises change and passionately hates Toronto, Catalans, Toulouse, and London for no reason other than geography. Those people may love the fact that Catalans, Toronto, and Toulouse are out of the Challenge Cup. However, how many new fans have they lost as a result of it? What about the Spanish fans whose first introduction to rugby league may have been Catalans showing off the trophy at Camp Nou (which was a great piece of marketing)? How do you win them back? The RFL also needs to work on acquiring better sponsors. This is something that I’ve seen discussed constantly on social media outlets. The Challenge Cup is no longer sponsored by Ladbrokes and currently, there has been no replacement. Ladbrokes refused to sign an extension, and a deal with any new sponsors have already fallen through. A joke that I’ve seen some fans make is the 3 non-English teams should get together and sponsor the Challenge Cup as some sort of revenge. The worst part about this is seeing fans openly mock the RFL’s ability to make money.
Honestly though, why would someone want to sponsor the Challenge Cup? One of the biggest reasons to sponsor sports events is to get more people to see your brand. Now that this deposit has been made public the Challenge Cup looks incredibly unattractive to potential sponsors. I would love to see the RFL’s pitch to sponsors:
“Please sponsor the Challenge Cup. It’s a great display of rugby league and the RFL’s biggest event hosted at the historic Old Trafford. Trust us, it’s great. But just so you know nobody is going to show up because Toronto and Catalans might be in the final.”
Again, the Challenge Cup, much like the Super League Grand Final, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, World Series, State of Origin, the Premiership Rugby Final, and any other sports’ championship game should be sold out regardless of who is playing. Making it publicly known that you are scared that you cannot sell it out is just as foolish as asking teams to pay a deposit for a chance to compete. Being afraid that the Challenge Cup will not sell out shows a lack of confidence in the RFL’s own marketing and ticket sales abilities. You are saying that you believe your fans will not be interested in your marquee event because their favourite team isn’t there. Passionate rugby league fans should want to witness history. Old Trafford should have been sold out last year, and anyone who had a chance to go but didn’t should be kicking themselves for missing that historic occasion. The RFL should also be kicking themselves for not capitalizing on it further. For example; maybe a French company would be more interested in sponsoring the Challenge Cup now that Catalans are the Champion. That chance has been thrown out the window now. Ultimately, the RFL needs to change their approach to marketing the game. They are admitting that it is flawed, no is the time to do something about it.
Worse than having a lack of confidence in the ability to sell the game, is the lack of confidence in the fans. A lack of confidence in Toronto, Toulouse, and Catalans fans to travel and see their team play for the Challenge Cup. The main issue I have with this is that the RFL clearly has learned nothing about Toronto's sports culture. Here in North America, Toronto fans are notorious for taking over stadiums for away games. Ask hockey fans in Buffalo, Ottawa, Detroit, Florida, and the other NHL cities what it’s like to hear a louder roar for a Leafs goal than the home team. Ask the Seattle Mariners what it’s like to look into your own crowd and see nothing but a sea of Blue Jays fans. Ask LeBron James, who sings the praises of Raptor fans whenever he plays them, what it’s like to play Toronto. Toronto fans will travel to the Challenge Cup. The RFL never even gave them a chance.
The thing that bothers me the most is if you are going to make some teams pay this £500,000 deposit, why did the RFL pick Catalans, Toulouse, and Toronto. It doesn’t make sense. The only reason I can think of is geography. They are non-English teams after all. The reason certainly is not ticket sales. During the 2018 regular season, Catalans averaged 8,353 fans. This number is good enough for 6th in Super League putting the Dragons in the top half of league attendance. Toronto averaged 6,239 fans. As the team awaited renovations to Lamport Stadium to be completed, Toronto played a game at Fletcher’s Fields, a much smaller venue, that drew 2,917. If you remove that game and only count the Lamport Stadium attendance Toronto averages 6,654 fans per game. Regardless both numbers are at the top of the Championship. Toulouse averaged 2,437 good for 3rd in the Championship. All three clubs have demonstrated their ability to sell tickets when compared to the other clubs. My question is if the RFL is concerned about ticket sales, why haven’t they asked the other teams to pay the deposit? As I said Catalans is 6th in average attendance. That means 6 teams are below them; Hull KR, Castleford Tigers, Huddersfield Giants, Wakefield Trinity, Widnes Vikings, and Salford Red Devils. Yet, none of these teams were asked for a deposit. Furthermore, Toronto’s average is higher than Huddersfield, Wakefield, Widnes, and Salford. Toulouse’s average is just a mere 300 people shy of Salford’s 2,748. Salford’s attendances could be described as embarrassing for most of the year. Salford’s attendance was worse than Toronto’s, Leigh Centurions, and Bradford Bulls who were playing in League 1. Yet they have not been asked to pay a deposit. Now perhaps you may say “no one wants to watch a bad team play” as an excuse for the poor attendances of Huddersfield, Wakefield, Widnes, and Salford. Obviously, it’s tough to watch your team lose night in and night out. Leeds Rhinos fans did it though. Leeds led the league in attendance despite missing the Super 8s. Good marketing and development of a passionate fan base will still get people through the gates regardless of how good the team is.
The other part of the issue is by asking for the deposit from Toulouse and Toronto the RFL is fully aware of the possibility of a Championship team making it to the Challenge Cup Final. To be honest, that is fantastic and it would be amazing to see a Championship team make a historic run in the Challenge Cup. However, what if that team is the Rochdale Hornets, or the Sheffield Eagles, or any of the other Championship teams that frequently struggle to draw more than 1000 people? Is the RFL asking them to pay a deposit? What if a League 1 team or a fully amateur team pulls off a miracle? Again, the Challenge Cup should be sold out regardless of who is in it.
I hope the RFL takes some time to seriously consider this decision. It would be disastrous for the game to not have the defending champion play in the Challenge Cup. As an extension, it may damage future fan interest in the game. Catalans, Toulouse, and Toronto have done a lot to grow the game, it would be great to see that continue. I know that I’m angry but it is only because I know rugby league is a wonderful game. Sometimes I just wish the RFL believed that too.