Michael Farrow's sports blog

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…on Widnes’ great comeback and the future of Super League

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Steve O'Connor, Widnes owner

Widnes chairman Steve O'Connor has put time, money and effort enhancing what Widnes already have. Unfortunately, they're the exception not the rule.

It’s old news, I guess. Widnes Vikings have been confirmed as Super League’s newest team, with the RFL living up to the promise that one Championship side would be guaranteed a licence for the 2012-2014 period. The Vikings have turned things around considerably in the three years since they were turned down in the last round of applications. Had the club been in its current state then, they would not have been shut out.

Even then Widnes were still the big Super League club-in-waiting. The “Cup Kings” of the 1980’s, where they boasted players such as Martin Offiah and Jonathan Davies, fell on hard times in the early 90’s, finding themselves in the Second Division when the sport switched to summer. However, they built a new stadium in conjunction with Halton Council in 1997 and promotion eventually came in 2001. Their period in Super League started well with a seventh place finish in 2002 but, no longer the power they once were, the Vikings subsequently battled relegation for three seasons. Halton Stadium was expanded to 13,500 in 2005 but relegation later that year started an inexorable slide for Widnes, ending when they were rescued from administration by local haulage millionaire Steve O’Connor in 2007. Still rebuilding at the time, the RFL refused the Vikings a Super League licence based on their previous financial problems and the poor state of their youth academy.

Some will suggest this represents a step backwards, likely swapping one of Yorkshire’s struggling teams for a well-funded outfit on the other side of the Pennines. Geographic expansion, empire-building, this is what the RFL needs to do apparently. It has worked so well in London that Harlequins RL, the fourth name of the team that started as Fulham RLFC in 1980, are still battling to get serviceable crowds and Celtic Crusaders, controversially awarded a licence in 2008, have been in administration and moved 140 miles away to Wrexham. When talking about expanding outside the heartlands, I view there as being two problems. Firstly, you have the geographic issue and secondly, you have the RFL’s lack of professional club development.

It is difficult to increase participation incrementally from the heartlands out when there’s little place to expand to immediately outside that area. League’s never going to penetrate Liverpool and so outside Tyneside and Teesside, there’s few urban areas to the North that could support massive crowds and those are cut off by the Yorkshire Dales. To the south, places like Sheffield and Nottingham need a lot of work and have to not only compete with football but semi-professional rugby union too. Cheshire, Staffordshire and the West Midlands have large populations but it requires a generation of development at amateur levels to produce more interest in the game. To be fair, the RFL doesn’t do the worst job there, but there’s no care taken to shepherd amateur clubs into semi-professionalism or helping the semi-pros get to professional level.

As we’ve seen with Widnes, if you can put the money into a club, you can move the club closer to the top level. What about those clubs that don’t have a Steve O’Connor? It’s all well and good demanding certain standards at Super League level but there’s no carrot to go along with the stick. A friend of mine is an expert on soccer in the USA, which faces similar issues. Major League Soccer, like Super League, wants to see its product played out in modern stadia. At lower professional levels, where the game struggles, teams mostly play on borrowed fields or on recreation grounds. The teams that have evolved from an existing amateur club and have their own stadium are stable. As such, my friend had a motto, which he felt would turn good amateur teams into great semi-pro teams; “you get the land, we’ll get the stadium”.

A stadium can be the silver bullet. Done right, it can generate revenue and become a focal point for the community. I doubt the RFL could afford to buy stadiums for every team that could get the land. However, the governing body certainly could take a lead in stadium development. Sit down with the clubs who’ve done it and made money, find out the pitfalls and then write the bible on how to make a stadium work. Create a plan and put it out to tender with architects to create a well-designed, expandable stadium that has all the trappings of a modern sports arena to allow year-round non-sporting usage, priced down to the last bolt. Maybe it is fully-permanent, maybe it is part-permanent and part-modular but it must be scalable from a low initial capacity to the potential 10,000+ that Super League want to take part in their premier competition. This sort of plan is possible, as Charlton Athletic showed when they redeveloped the Valley.

Right there, you’d give a massive helping hand to those outside Super League who have no chance of getting there without some assistance. If the RFL threw their weight behind these stadium projects, maybe the hands of councils, banks and investors could be cracked open. The criteria for a Championship club to apply for a licence this time required the applicant to have reached the Championship Grand Final or won the Northern Rail Cup in 2009 or 2010, having a stadium of over 10,000 capacity, an average attendance of over 2,500 in 2009 or 2010, a turnover of £1m in either 2009 or 2010 and to have not been insolvent at any point since 2008. They all sound perfectly reasonable on the face of it.

Halifax, Barrow Raiders, Featherstone Rovers, Widnes Vikings and Batley Bulldogs all met the first criteria but only Halifax and Widnes met the second and third criteria, with Halifax having completed their new East Stand at the Shay in 2010 to take the capacity to over 10,000. Like Widnes, Halifax are a former top club who struggled financially in Super League. Nearly going to the wall after relegation, Fax rallied the rugby league community to raise £90,000 to stave off liquidation in August 2006. Whilst Barrow applied, they were never going to be allowed to go any further, as they simply didn’t meet the baseline criteria. Meanwhile, Halifax are allowed to apply for a licence when the process kicks off for existing Super League clubs in the summer, with one club guaranteed to not make the cut due to Widnes’ guaranteed inclusion. The main concern would be attendance figures, as it is difficult to magic up extra fans, even with elite-level rugby league on show.

The aim for 2014 and beyond should be to have a more vigorous competition for a Super League licence from Championship clubs and to have every Championship side in their own stadium. More than a few teams in the Championship and Championship One rent their stadium, be it from football clubs or from the council. Very few outside the professional ranks have the wherewithal to build a stadium. Considering the RFL want to expand the Championship and Championship One to 12 teams each, with three clubs required to make up the numbers, this is not just a Super League issue. Four clubs have currently shown an interest in joining Championship One between 2012 and 2015, with Hemel Stags from Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire publicly stating their hopes for elevation to the professional ranks. Having received planning permission to build a small stadium at their Pennine Way base in 2008, the Stags would be the second team from the South of England after the London Skolars to move up from the amateur leagues.

Considering all this potential upward momentum and the work the RFL does at an amateur level, it really seems they have missed a trick. It’s also harsh and slightly hypocritical to continually slap Salford, Castleford and Wakefield on the hands when they are in the small minority of rugby league clubs that own their own stadium and an even smaller minority who have plans for the sort of modern, premier stadium the RFL demands. It’s not that the RFL don’t do anything, they held a seminar for the clubs looking to join the professional ranks but they need to do more. This is a case where a little more support would create a lot more opportunities.

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Written by Michael Farrow

April 15, 2011 at 8:49 pm

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