In depth look at Super League licencing when it was introduced last time

English rugby league is set to be taken in a new direction with sports management company IMG set to transform the commercial side of the sport, and the company have made a further statement today as we head into the 2023 season.

It was announced last year the the global marketing agents would become involved and in uniting with the RFL and Super League they have formed RL Commercial, which as the name suggests is keen to look after all things commercial in the sport.

The 12-year partnership will bring in a new era of rugby league with the company keen to focus on grading for clubs, with set criteria determining which grade a club receives, and therefore which tier of the sport it can play in.

A meeting of the board on January 16th was presided over by chair Frank Slevin and IMG Media Head of Sport Ed Mallaburn present as well.

They were joined by Simon Johnson, the Chair of the RFL; Anna Chanduvi, the Sports and Entertainment Media Partnerships Lead at Meta; Peter Hutton, a vastly experienced sports media specialist who has held senior roles with Eurosport, Fox Sports and most recently Meta; and Jonathan Murphy, the CEO of the listed medical property specialists Assura who is also Chair of the North West Business Leadership Team.

Slevin said: “We have assembled a high-calibre Board which offers a wide range of experience and expertise, and our first in-person meeting reflected a common desire to drive Rugby League to fulfil its commercial potential.

“It was important that we hit the ground running ahead of the February start to the 2023 season, and with memories still fresh of the Rugby League World Cup in the autumn of 2022.

“RL Commercial was born from the realignment of the sport which allows us to build on the successes of the World Cup, where we saw the value of the Men’s, Women’s and Wheelchair competitions running in parallel.

“We are determined to continue that momentum as we look forward to celebrating the inclusivity of our Super League and Challenge Cup competitions – in each case with Men’s, Women’s and Wheelchair competitions, and not forgetting the Physical Disability and Learning Disability Super Leagues.

“That determination will be obvious when the 2023 competitions are formally launched over the coming weeks.”

With the meeting concluded it’s been confirmed that clubs have been informed of the next stages of their ‘Reimagining Rugby League’ programme.

Grading criteria will be presented at a Special General Meeting on March 9th.

A further vote will then take place on April 19th, by which point fans could learn what the future looks like under IMG.

IMG’s licencing will see every club given a licence from Category A-C. Category A clubs would be safe from relegation and would be permanent fixtures in the top tier as long as they maintain a Category A licence which will be reviewed annually.

Meanwhile, Category B teams could feature in Super League if there is sufficient space for them. However, should there be 12 Category A teams, no Category B teams would feature in Super League. Likewise, should the number of Category A teams exceed 12 then it stands to reason that Super League could and would expand.

The majority of Category B teams would be set to play in the Championship alongside those with a Category C licence. The lower leagues would continue to use traditional promotion and relegation with clubs pushing for a Category A licence to force their way into the top tier.

This of course is not the first time licencing has been brought into Super League. It was first introduced going into the 2009 season with the criteria for the licences being outlined in December 2007. This saw Salford and Crusaders added to the 12-team Super League for 2009 which expanded to 14 teams with eight contesting the play-offs.

The same 14 teams contested the next three seasons until Crusaders fell out of the league after withdrawing their licence allowing Widnes Vikings to replace them. The licences again lasted three years – a departure from the annually reviewed B licences suggested by IMG – until 2014.

That season followed the same format as the previous five except the bottom two clubs – Bradford and London – were relegated allowing for the creation of the Super 8s from 2015-18 which used non-conventional relegation until 2019 simplified things.

The last time we saw licencing in Super League, it again used an A, B and C system but was certainly very different to the A, B and C system IMG suggested yesterday.

Instead of making Super League exclusive to Category A teams but Category B teams only used to fill out the league should there be an insufficient number of A teams with the hope being that more A teams come along to expand the division as IMG have proposed, originally Super League included teams with A, B and C licences.

Teams with A and B licenses were safe in Super League whilst those with a C licence were at risk of relegation much like any team with a B licence now.

Every potential Super League club going into 2008 with these licences coming into effect in 2009 would score a point for each of the following: a stadium capacity of at least 12,000, an average crowd of 10,000 or more, an average crowd that filled 40% of the stadium capacity, a turnover of at least $4 million per annum, solvency, a reasonable playing strength, a reasonable contribution to junior rugby, a stadium meeting the standard of a premier competition, geographical position with teams more than 20 miles away from any other Super League club favoured and compliance with the salary cap.

Teams who satisfied the majority of these would be given a A licence whilst teams who struggled to meet this criteria would receive a C licence.

It stands to reason that similar criteria will be used should licencing take effect as IMG recommend. However, as aforementioned, it seems that there will be more clubs given a category A licence than in the previous variant and there certainly won’t be any clubs with a C licence in Super League this time around.

Nonetheless, there are certainly plenty of similarities between the last time Super League had licencing and it’s reintroduction.

One would hope that licencing again has a positive effect as it certainly seemed to do so originally as it gave teams space to focus on building a long term project rather than worrying about relegation which has seen newly promoted teams like Leigh, London and Toulouse fail to gain a foothold in the competition.

During licencing Crusaders (2009) and Catalans (2010) finished bottom but went on to make the play-offs the following season.

Widnes also went from finishing bottom in 2012 to being a part of the play-offs in 2014 showing the effectiveness of licences.

During this spell five different teams finished top over the course of six seasons whilst 12 of the 15 teams who featured in Super League in this period made the play-offs.

Only Salford, Harlequins/London and Bradford failed to do so. Meanwhile, a remarkable eight different teams finished in the top four.

If licencing again gives birth to long termism, then we could see a much more competitive Super League moving forward.

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