Rugby league clubs have been urged to look beyond the ‘crippling’ model of promotion and relegation and embrace ambitious new plans to establish a sustainable future for the sport.
Sports media giants IMG has proposed a grading system which means clubs will no longer be able to aspire to elevation to the top tier via on-field performance alone.
Under IMG’s plan, unveiled as part of its long-term ‘strategic partnership’ with the sport, clubs will earn A, B or C category status – with those in the top band immune from relegation but all facing the prospect of an annual review.
The move – which still has to be ratified by member clubs – inevitably drew comparisons with the ill-fated licensing model that kicked off Super League in 1996, but initial indications are that it has been given a cautious welcome.
Clint Goodchild, chairman of Championship club York City Knights, insisted it was high time the sport ripped up established conventions if it wanted to maximise its future potential.
Goodchild told the PA news agency: “I think overall it’s a positive scenario for the game in general.
“I think we have to be bold in our approach and I think it is probably a good middle ground to give clubs the opportunity to meet a minimum standard that should be required by top-tier professional sport.
“The public may be very fond of (promotion and relegation), but the facts say that it doesn’t work. Everyone likes the idea of potentially going up, but I think it’s the hope that kills.
“Clubs are already stretching beyond their means in areas that are unsustainable. They are spending money on players thinking winning on the field will end in profitability and it has crippled the game.”
If rubber-stamped, the new structure will take effect from the start of the 2025 season, with the current structure remaining in place until then, and no plans to change the system between the Championship and League One.
IMG believes it will encourage clubs to evolve long-term and sustainable business plans, and stressed that ‘A’ grading – of which the exact criteria is yet to be established – will only be distributed to proven models.
It means no immediate parachute into the top-flight for the likes of London Broncos, despite IMG singling out the capital as one of the key future growth areas of the game.
But the announcement has not found unanimous favour, with Keighley Cougars co-owner Ryan O’Neill insisting promotion and relegation must remain integral to the domestic sport.
O’Neill said: “There is a huge opportunity to engage with people, to entertain people, to create a sport that is dynamic.
“This doesn’t mean super clubs that are immortal to the jeopardy of relegation. It means offering a competitive sport where losers can become winners, and winners can become losers. Preserving glamour clubs for vanity is not the answer.”