Rugby league hub Shane Richardson exclusive re: restructuring British rugby league (full article)

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FORMER South Sydney and Penrith chief executive Shane Richardson has tabled a detailed proposal to restructure the British game via an independent commission and NRL investment.

Richardson, also the founder and former owner of Gateshead Thunder and head of strategy at the Australian governing body, says there is interest from NRL CEO Andrew Abdo surrounding the concept and that he has shared the idea of a 10-team elite league, with one club up and down each year, with key figures in the British game.

He describes English rugby league as currently “unmarketable”. While Richardson is not wedded any particular name, his idea fits the description of an “NRL Europe” championed by others.

“I’m not one who just makes those statements - I’ve put a plan to the NRL, I’ve put a plan for the purchase of the Super League and try and set up a really independent

operation where you have 10 teams … two external from England,” Richardson told Long Reads.

“My conversations with the NRL have said that they’re interested. Not that they will do it but they are certainly interested. They’ve got a bit on their plate at the moment themselves with a 17th team.

“But it’s not any further down the track than that. It’s something I’ve shared with some people in England as well.

“What I’m trying to do is start a conversation to grow the game. The NRL is only one option. There’s obviously private investors etc, etc. But they’re not going to invest money at the amount that I think should be required for a competition for the future until the game its its own act in place.

“And the only way to do that is everyone puts their egos aside, completely aside, and set up an independent commission and run it accordingly.”

Rugby league in the UK is currently at one of many recent crossroads, with Sky signing a dramatically reduced television deal to show Super League for only another two years, and the elite competition’s clubs in talks over how much of that money will be passed onto the governing body, lower divisions and grass-roots.

Richardson’s decision to go public with what had been a closely-guarded secret document can be seen as a sign of frustration at the lack of progress.

“First of all, you’ve got to have an independent commission,” he said. “Second of all, you’ve got to have a competition that people want to buy into. I personally believe it’s a 10-team competition with two external at this stage from England. I think you’ve got to take the game to the areas where it’s going to grow and I see areas like Newcastle and things like that as the growth areas.

“Underneath that, though, you’ve got to allow for promotion. I’m a one-team-only promoted person. You have a competition underneath that and underneath that which is a proper feeder system through the first grade side.

“The start of it all is: what is a viable competition that’s going to attract television and investment? I believe they require investment and I believe people will invest if they come up with a model that shows they are a truly independent commission and that they’ve set up structures in place to grow the game and that they have a 10-team competition - in my opinion - that is viable and growing.”

While one proposal is for a new competition to sit on top of Super League, Richardson says the whole game has to agree to the restructure even if it means many people losing their power within the sport.

“Now, the money they’ve got at the moment is not good enough to do what’s required to help grow rugby league. But they’ve got to be prepared to make some marketing and commercial decisions about what the game’s going to look like over the next three to five years.

“They can sit down and make a really smart move here and put aside their own clubs and put aside their own feelings and put aside the animosity - which is what they had to do at the ARLC, by the way.

“Who would have believed that Nick Pappas and Nick Politis and all these guys … they sat down at a table and worked out what was best for the game. They worked out a system and a treaty that was best for the game.

“If they can do that in the ARLC and the NRL with all the fights …. If they can sit down and do that for the betterment of the game, why can’t a competition like England do exactly the same thing? It’s a farce that it’s not like that, an absolute farce.

“I’ve got a great belief that it’s a commercial goldmine if they would sit down and work it out because until they do that, they are not going to have a saleable property for the marketplace, be it television or investment.

“And it’s as simple as that. It’s going to continue to go backwards and be dominated by four or five clubs, whinging and whining a surviving. But people have got to put all that said and say ‘are we really in this for rugby league or are we in this for ourselves’.

“I’ve presented it to the NRL, I’ve spoken to the NRL about it. We’ve discussed it, certainly Andrw Abdo and I have discussed it. “

The commission model - a group of independent people running a sport in a quasi-government fashion - is popular in Australia and New Zealand but not in the UK where clubs transitionally have power because that’s how sport there started - with clubs forming “associations” so they had someone to play against.

“Australia had a real challenge 10 years ago,” said Richardson. “They brought in an independent commission that wasn’t dominated by the clubs. It had independence, it had external people on the board, it had a lot of rules in place so the same-old same-old couldn’t happen.

“People say over that period of time it’s been difficult - but it’s been far better than not having it at all. It’s gone ahead. It’s started to make decisions that are not just about the NRL. It’s about the lower tiers. It’s quality, participation, the Intrust Super Cups underneath it, etc, etc. Underneath that, Ron Massey Cup.

“The only challenge … when the money came in from the last television deal, they clubs jumped up and carried on and they got too much of a share of it. It’s as simple as that. More should have been given towards development. I’m sure this time, when the new deal comes up, that is exactly what will happen. Decisions are made based upon representations to the ARLC and passed on down the line. You’ve still got the QRL, you’ve still got all those organisations but at the end of the day you’ve got a body that is independent - and I believe it is independent - that has people in there trying to run the game for the betterment of the total game, the whole game.

“That’s the trouble in England. You’ve got a split world with the RFL - what it runs and what it doesn’t run - Super League clubs and what they’re doing. What they’ve got is an unmarketable product to actually take to the market.

“So until they get that sorted out and come up with a plan….”

Richardson sees what is called “dual registration” in England - players going back to lower tiers to play when they are not selected in the elite team - as a workable solution in the UK - and he says television money should absolutely be split evenly as a golden rule.

“In Australia these agreements are formalised. Canberra have got agreements with Mounties, Roosters have got an agreement with North Sydney, Cronulla have got agreements with Newtown. There’s no reason you can’t do that.

“Obviously having a close look at what you’re doing with your pathways and how you’re doing it, how it grows through those Super League clubs .. because they’ve got to put money into those pathways too.

“(The NRL are ) looking to expand. The other thing about expansion: if you’re going to expand - and I’m a great expansion believer, I’ve done half the money in my life on it - but at the end of the day you can’t expand by taking less television money.

“The NRL are not after the 17th team to take less money. They’re going to take the same money. If you’re going to have an expansion plan, you’ve got to sit down and map that out as part of this. Anyone who will want to invest in the game will want to know where the game is going to grow and where it’s going to grow to. That’s an important part of it.”

Like Toronto and Leigh, Gateshead Thunder had to survive on less central distribution than their rivals when they entered Super League in 1999.

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