SWINTON LIONS, IMG AND THE RFL – RE-IMAGINING RUGBY LEAGUE
15 October 2022
On behalf of the Swinton Lions Board, I would like to update our supporters on the club’s view of the proposals which are currently being formulated by the RFL and its new strategic partner, IMG.
At this stage we emphasise that the club’s only commitment so far is to endorse the general principles of the recommendations that have been put before us, and to support the continuation of the process whereby the RFL and IMG scope out the finer details before in due course final proposals are put to the clubs.
As a general principle, Swinton Lions shares the view of virtually all of the game’s significant stakeholders that a vision for the future of the sport is urgently required. A future that will give justice to this most exciting of sports, and attract investment and bring financial stability. Certainly the credentials of IMG in the field of sports marketing seem second to none, and we at Swinton Lions have so far been impressed by their professionalism, knowledge, and willingness to engage.
A critical and attractive strand of the proposed strategy is that it unifies the governing body and all member clubs under a single commercial arm, with the aim of producing returns in which we all have a guaranteed and contracted share. It is therefore in all of our combined interests to grow the size of the pie, instead of arguing about our own slice of the pre-existing pie. This cross-game collaborative approach to marketing and promotion might seem obvious, but it’s never been implemented previously. We as a non-Super League club will have a guaranteed share of the future combined commercial returns of the sport, and will not have the uncertainty of wondering what scraps might be left over from the top table following each periodic broadcasting deal.
The one aspect of the proposals which has attracted the most criticism so far is the suggestion that promotion and relegation will be scrapped, and that this is fundamentally at odds with meritocracy being earned solely on the field of play. On the surface this is understandable, since the concept of promotion and relegation is very much engrained in the psyche of British sport. However, whilst we have some reservations and still require more detail, we believe IMG’s proposal in this regard is being misrepresented in some quarters. We do not believe that “grading” is a return to “licensing” (which effectively was indeed a closed-shop), but rather we believe that the proposed grading system is geared towards driving standards, and giving ALL clubs the opportunity to progress once required parameters at each grade are satisfied. We don’t believe the proposals are primarily geared around creating a closed shop for the elite. Clubs that achieve the Grade A category will only retain that grading if they maintain the standards required of the grading. Yes we accept that the early years of how the grading system will work in practice requires much more detail, but moving forward there is theoretically no limit to the number teams that can achieve an “A Grade” and join the elite league. This actually gives every club an opportunity, to know that if they drive standards across all areas of their organisation, as well as on the field, there is a means by which they can progress. When you consider yesterday’s poll of 38 in favour and only one club against, then it has to be clear that the vote was about a whole lot more than just promotion and relegation.
At Swinton Lions we would hazard a guess that we are currently a Grade C club. However, we are given comfort and encouragement by the fact that all of the measures that we have been putting in place over recent years (aside from the obvious of winning promotion to the Championship to improve our playing status) will be effort well spent, and we will soon know exactly what we need to do to achieve a B grading. Our recent progress through which we now have financial stability, secure and democratic ownership, secure ground tenancy, top class playing and corporate facilities, top class training facilities, strong governance, strong community development – including our England Talent Pathway programme, the launch of our Manchester Lions junior teams, the launch of our women’s team, and the intention to launch a wheelchair team – plus not to mention our vastly improved reputational standing with the governing body, and our enhanced standing amongst our own sponsors and strategic partners. All of this sustained hard work, both on and off the field, has been part of a clear and intentional business development strategy over recent years. Our intention has been, and continues to be, to improve our long-term prospects by putting the club in a position where we can realistically hope to attract the type of investment that will enhance our infrastructure off the field and push us up the leagues on the field. We see our club strategy as fitting hand in glove with that being proposed by IMG, particularly when you take into account the advantages of our geographical location in relation to many of our competitors.
Regardless of what is included within the finer detail of the grading system, our immediate aim will be to establish ourselves as a competitive force on the field of play in the Championship. This goes without saying, and is our primary reason for doing what we do – i.e. fielding a semi-professional rugby league team. However, we also feel that it is important that all clubs should drive standards in order to make themselves and the sport more attractive to potential supporters, sponsors and investors. The game as a whole does not benefit if a club spends 100% of its effort and income on its team, and does nothing for the wider game, the community in which it plays, or its infrastructure.
There is clearly a lot of work still to be done here at Swinton Lions, but we have made good progress. We still need to see the finer detail of the IMG proposals, but broadly speaking we welcome their involvement, and would ask our supporters to keep an open mind, and consider the opportunities to the Lions that we hope will arise from their final presentation and strategic partnership with the sport.
STEVE WILD, CEO, SWINTON LIONS RLFC