In a bid to boost the sport’s fortunes, governing body the Rugby Football League(RFL) opted for a bold change for a new era as their member clubs voted in a controversial new league structure that had previously been rejected by the Scottish Football Association.
For those unaware, it involved the top two divisions (Super League and the Championship) reforming to consist of 12 teams each.
New controversial league structure
After playing a total of 23 games against each team home and away, plus another game at a neutral venue (Magic Weekend for Super League, and Summer Bash for Championship), the two leagues split into three groups of eight.
The top eight play on towards the goal of being Super League champion in the Super 8s.
The bottom four of Super League and the top four of the Championship play in the Super 8s Qualifiers, where the top three earn their place in Super League for next season, and the fourth and fifth placed teams then meet in a one-off match to decide the final place.
The remaining eight teams (the bottom eight of the Championship) then play in the Championship Shield, with the bottom two of that eight ultimately relegated to the sport’s third tier.
All three of these groups went on for seven rounds, playing each opposing team once.
It is by design a complicated format, and one that may not have been possible to successfully implement even 10 years ago.
It wasn’t until the RFL launched a video last summer that the tide began to turn and people were able to understand the system, understand why it was being done and how it would work.
The RFL’s Marketing Director, Mark Foster, said: “Initially, fans thought that the structure was too difficult to understand and so we put a communications and PR plan together over a 12 month period.
“The first stage was to educate – not just what the structure was and how it works, but why we were doing it.
“The video was a key part to that. As people then started to understand more, we mixed education with some excitement, and then eventually got to the stage where it didn’t need any more education as people had picked it up. Throughout we’ve made sure there was consistent messaging in place.”
The release of the video in August 2014 represented a huge shift in perception and Foster admits the whole transition might have been easier had that video been released from the start.
“Probably, just from the reaction. Everyone’s perception changed and people understood the sentiment of it all, they started to understand.
“We came up with the slogan ‘Every Minute Matters’ and that’s proven to be a truth, certainly much more than previous. And that’s been reflected in the amount of interaction and excitement we’ve seen and the raised visibility, profile and engagement across all of our channels.”
Social and Digital Media
The RFL have recently appointed a member of staff to monitor its profile and engagement, especially across its increasing number of digital channels. The presence of social media and websites, has enabled the RFL to at least have control over their communication and reach out to its main stakeholders, the fans.
Foster added: “If we weren’t in the digital age, we would have been reliant on somebody else deciding whether it was worthy of publishing in their paper etc. Even then it may have been influenced by that individual’s personal comments or perception on the structure.
“Because of social media and our own channels, we were able to get it out there without relying on a third party. The digital world brings us as close as possible to the fans and enables them to interact with the sport 24/7.
“Every fan can have a one-on-one experience and it enables us to personalise that experience. The more we can understand the fans, the more we can talk in a way that they understand and that can only be positive for rugby league and help it succeed.”
Ever since the bold new format was announced last July, the RFL have been active on their social media accounts always answering questions posed by fans. Super League General Manager, Blake Solly, amongst others, have taken to Twitter Q&A’s to address fan concerns and over the past 12 months, fans have been won over.
The real litmus test is whether the new structure can revitalise rugby league’s standing in commercial and media terms, and attract the big name sponsors and additional coverage that it craves.