Talking RL: Preaching to the converted is fine, but it’s not enough

Winner of 2015 Sports Personality of the Year Andy Murray with runner up Kevin Sinfield and 3rd placed winner Jessica Ennis-Hill

Winner of 2015 Sports Personality of the Year Andy Murray with runner up Kevin Sinfield and 3rd placed winner Jessica Ennis-Hill

This week, the ‘i’ newspaper issued an open letter to RFL chief Nigel Wood, proposing a few changes which would help them give rugby league more column inches.

I didn’t agree with all the suggestions, but I liked the sentiment; asking for help to try and give the sport greater coverage.

It came two weeks after a handful of national journalists complained about Super League streaming Wigan’s press conference on Facebook.

Both issues prompted interesting debates – among my colleagues and fans – and have separate issues.

But there is common-ground; the reaction by some that it doesn’t matter about the national papers. ‘Who cares?’ they ask.

We live in a digital age, after all, and everything we want can be found online, on social media, on our smartphones or tablets or laptops.

Our touchscreens can trick us into thinking rugby league is bigger than is really is

We now have greater access to footage of tries, games and interviews, whenever we want it, wherever we are.

News updates all the time.

Who cares what’s in the papers, right?

Wrong.

And i don’t say that just because there are many people not on social media, who don’t use the web a lot (or at all), or aren’t glued to their phones as if attached by an invisible umbilical cord.

Most clubs, and Super League, put a lot of effort and energy into social media.

And why not?

It’s a great tool for them to communicate with their fans.

Only this week, Wigan launched a snapchat account (I’m not ashamed to say I have no idea what that is), and frankly, they’d be idiots not to.

Other clubs already have them. too, as well as accounts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and even their own YouTube channels.

But my concern with rugby league – and it was highlighted by the ‘Who cares?’ reaction to the above debates – is that some under-value the importance of TV, radio and (to an admittedly-decreasing degree) national newspapers.

Traditional media helps keep league in the national sporting psyche.

I’d argue Kevin Sinfield’s Sports Personality... runner’s up award last year did more for strengthening the code’s profile than any number of tweets or posts last year.

Pick up the Daily Mirror and it’s great that, after the vast number of pages dedicated to the Premier League, we see rugby league alongside golf, tennis, boxing, cricket and rugby union.

We should be annoyed that some of the other papers ignore it (that’s you, Daily Mail).

We should be annoyed at the lack of any rugby league talk shows, magazine programmes or highlights segments on Sky Sports (they are now - where else? - online).

We should be annoyed the Super League Show is on BBC2, late at night, and only in the north. By contrast, American Football gets two shows a week on BBC1, one straight after Match of the Day, and nationwide.

Many of us are guilty of living in our own bubbles, and the web – and social media – can easily give us a distorted perspective of rugby league’s stature.

Our touchscreens can trick us into thinking it’s got a bigger presence than it actually has.

When I go onto the BBC homepage, for example, I have a ‘ticker’ for rugby league. But others around the country don’t.

Facebook – the monster of them all – uses advanced algorithms that control what information we get to see. Users are fed more of what they like.

And on Twitter, because we pick who we follow, we only see what we’re interested in.

Which is why, on my account, I see updates from – mainly – rugby league people and clubs, sports people and clubs, a few friends, a few journalists, and some very dodgy rock bands.

It’s tailored to me.

But to use the last of those examples, Bon Jovi don’t need to sell their new album to me.

I’m already buying.

It’s other people they need to convince, which was why I heard Sir Jon (yep, I’m going with that) interviewed on BBC 5 Live yesterday. Why he will be the One Show tonight. Why he will give interviews to newspapers and release singles for the radio... as well as hitting social media.

And rugby league needs to ensure it doesn’t forget the value of traditional media, too. So that someone flicking through the channels or a newspaper or their car radio, sees and hears a presence of the game.

Relying on social media and websites isn’t enough. They won’t broaden the sport’s appeal, because they are preaching to the converted.

And I’ve said many times before, if league tries to stay still, it will only go backwards – because it’s operating in a congested market with more competition for attention, air-time, web-hits, headlines and, yes, ticket sales than ever before.

Don’t believe me?

On Grand Final night, across Manchester, the UFC is staging a televised-event at the Arena which sold out in less than 10 minutes.

That wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago.

UFC, incidentally, is great at communicating with existing fans through social media and the web... but headliner Michael Bisping was still on Sky News’ breakfast show recently.

That sport is big, but it wants to be bigger. It wants to strengthen its profile.

Now, there are people at the RFL who get that. People who push hard to get the players ‘out there’.

People who see the value of a Sam Tomkins Q&A in Sport magazine or the Evening Standard. People who would love Super League to have household names like Martin Offiah.

And some clubs get that, too.

You know which ones... you’ll see their players on a Question of Sport. You’ll see their games being advertised on the radio, in newspapers and even on banners being dragged by planes, like Wigan have just done.

But some, sadly, don’t see the bigger picture, and exist – like some fans – in their own bubble.

I won’t name the colleague, or the club, who asked for a press pass (admittedly, late) to a game and was told there was no desk space or power socket for him... even though he was covering it for two national tabloids!

When he got to the game – carrying an extension lead – there were six media men covering it for the two clubs’ own social media accounts and websites!

They’re right to do that, of course, as long as they don’t lose sight that they are operating in a bubble.

Because, back to the debate: who, really, would watch press conferences streamed on Super League’s Facebook page? Existing fans.

I’d go a step further and say the die-hards.

And for them, it’s great.

They have tailor-made, wall-to-wall coverage of their favourite sport. Highlights, reactions, opinions, pictures.

They could drown in a sea of retweets, likes and shares.

And if others aren’t interested... well, who cares?

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