Ian Lenagan has underlined the importance of this week’s crunch summit – saying the future success of Super League may hinge on the outcome.
Clubs will vote at an Extraordinary General Meeting this Friday to decide whether to ditch or retain the Super-8s/Qualifiers structure for 2019.
Wigan, and the majority of the other top-flight clubs, made their stance clear when they took control of Super League from the RFL and brought in Robert Elstone as chief executive.
But their plans to revert to a more traditional format – including one-up, one-down promotion and relegation – met with resistance from some clubs, particularly in West Yorkshire, prompting the call of an EGM to settle the issue.
Wigan owner and chairman Lenagan, and all other Super League clubs except Leeds, believe a change of structure is needed to allow Elstone to revitalise the competition ahead of negotiations over the next TV deal.
The existing contract with Sky Sports runs out in 2021, and receding attendances and viewing figures has led to fears the next broadcast deal will not be at the same level unless action is taken.
Lenagan told the Wigan Observer: “This decision to change the fixture format is crucial to the whole of rugby league.
“The future of rugby league depends on having a thriving top-tier with national broadcasting appeal.
“There is absolutely minimal interest nationally in the Qualifiers and that amounts to terribly low attendances of under 2,000 and viewing figures around 80,000 which compares dramatically badly with 8,000 attendances and 200,000 viewing figures for regular Super League games.
“Is that the picture of rugby league that we want to project when attempting to negotiate the next television deal, vital to the funding of the whole game?
“Compare that to rugby union with a top-tier of 12 clubs broadcast weekly with one up one down promotion and relegation and a current valuation of £550 million only this week.
“It is the same with the Premier League in football and other sports.
“There is a complete malaise with the structure we have. The problem at the moment is the tail is wagging the dog.
“We need to change the game, improve marketing, improve sponsorship, and do a lot of the things which Robert Elstone wants to do – and to do that we need to put the focus on the top-tier.
“Do that, and the whole of rugby league will benefit. We need clubs in the Championship and League One to see that, because currently there are a few West Yorkshire clubs dominating the opinion.”
Under the Super-8s structure, Super League splits after 23 rounds, with the bottom four peeling off to form a new division – the Qualifiers – and battle for their top-flight status along with the top quartet from the Championship.
But inevitably, that not only puts potentially four clubs at jeopardy, it also means a quarter of clubs’ fixtures are not known until the end of July – which Lenagan blames for their poor crowds.
“Last Thursday was the first time in 10 years since I’ve been at Wigan that we had less than 10,000 for a regular season game,” he said.
“We normally take between 1,000 and 1,500 to Catalans, this time we took 50 to 100 because you couldn’t get the flights at such short notice.
“If you look in the NRL there is a massive amount of interest in the last five weeks of the season. We’ve got a complete disinterest until we get to the final two weeks of the season.”
On Monday, Batley chairman Kevin Nicholas – a member of the Championship/League One Advisory Group – said opponents to the plan had two major issues: promotion and relegation, as well funding.
On the first point, he suggested they would compromise if – in addition to one-up, one-down – there was a play-off involving the 11th-placed Super League clubs and teams finishing 2nd, 3rd and 4th in the Championship.
Meanwhile, on funding, he said he wanted the existing funding they receive to remain the same, pro rata at 12.5 per cent – as in, if the TV revenue increases, so does their slice of the pie, and vice versa.
Lenagan, though, insisted the deal on the table is fair to them and protects their future income.
He said: “We’ve guaranteed promotion and relegation of one club from Championship, we’ve guaranteed funding to the Championship and League One at the same level until 2021 and at the same level after that if we get the same TV deal and a decent level otherwise.
“What more could they ask for?
“They are saying they want to carry on (with the Super-8s) because they have a slightly better chance of promotion.
“I’ve heard people accuse Super League of being selfish and this being a money grab, but it is selfishness on the part of the Championship which is holding back these vital change to fixture structure.”
There will be 55 votes cast at the EGM. Super League clubs get two each, matching the number from clubs in the Championship and League One (Toronto and Toulouse are excluded, as they are not member clubs of the RFL), as well as seven from bodies in the community game.
The proposal, which has been put forward by the RFL, needs not only a majority vote, but at least four votes by clubs from the Championship/League One.
This situation has arisen because the RFL ultimately decided to go to a General Meeting rather than just support and endorse the negotiated agreement between RFL and Super League which their powers allowed them to do.
There wasn’t a General Meeting when this fixture structure was adopted, and if the RFL – with Super League – used its powers properly it could have been enacted quickly.
Lenagan said: “This is where we are and it is vitally important that the whole of rugby league votes for these changes to allow it an exciting and financially stable structure funding the whole of the game through a strong, nationally-appealing top-tier.”