Stadiums among grading criteria outlined by IMG for ‘reimagining’ of rugby league

Featured image credit: Bradford Council

The IMG agency has today (Thursday) presented to the Rugby Football League (RFL) Council a recommended grading criteria to define how Super League, Championship and League One clubs will be assessed from 2025, with stadiums among the factors that will be considered.

The criteria cover five areas as part of IMG’s Reimagining Rugby League plans. IMG last year signed a 12-year strategic partnership with the RFL and Super League Europe to reimagine rugby league and its competitions in the UK.

IMG has assembled a team of experts across its media business and the Endeavor network to work with a joint venture company formed by the RFL and Super League.

The criteria presented today are based on a combination of on and off-field variables, and it is hoped the plan will collectively increase clubs’ fan bases, diversify revenues, drive sustainable investment into clubs and the sport, and run clubs in a “best-in-class way”.

Each of the five areas have been given a percentage of the overall weighting, with stadiums covering 15%. This grading principle will be based on a number of factors, including facilities and utilisation, which add value to the fan and broadcast or digital viewer experience, and match or exceed competition from other sports and events.

Clubs currently engaged in stadium redevelopment projects include Hull Kingston Rovers, Bradford Bulls (pictured) and Castleford Tigers.

Other criteria include fandom (25%), which will encourage clubs to attract more supporters both at home and digitally; and performance (25%), which will incentivise clubs to perform on the field and drive fan awareness and engagement. Teams will be ranked between one and 36 based on where they finish in the leagues for the previous three seasons, with bonus points to be awarded to teams who win league and cup competitions in the previous season.

Finances have been given a weighting of 25% and will reflect the success of fan engagement and business performance and rewarding sustainable investment, as well as diversified revenue streams and sound financial management. Catchment has been given a 10% weighting and will be based on area population and the number of clubs in the area, with a view to maximising growth of the sport in the largest markets to generate new fan bases and incentivise investment.

IMG will work with the RFL and RL Commercial to conduct a series of grading criteria follow-up consultations with club representatives in March and early April, with a vote to take place on April 19.

If voted through, illustrative grades for the 2024 season will be released at the end of the 2023 season and clubs will be provided with a dashboard outlining the areas they need to improve to attain a higher grade.

Grading will then come into full effect from 2025, with the top-tier league featuring 12 clubs including all ‘Category A’ clubs and the highest-ranking ‘Category B’ clubs. Gradings will be reassessed annually, meaning that promotion and relegation between the tiers is expected to continue, although it will no longer be wholly determined by on-field performance.

Frank Slevin, chair of RL Commercial, said: “After the overwhelming support provided by clubs to the Reimagining Rugby League recommendations when they were first presented last September, the clubs have now been provided with full details of the grading process which is an important part of those proposals.

“An immense amount of work has been done by IMG, as part of their long-term strategic partnership with rugby league, to produce a blueprint which breaks new ground for British sport. It is important the clubs now have time to consider the proposals, and to provide feedback, in a series of meetings that have been arranged between now and the special general meeting of clubs next month.”

Matt Dwyer, vice-president of sport management at IMG Media, added: “Our goal with the proposed criteria was to establish an objective, easily measurable and reliable framework that will drive long-term, sustainable growth for individual clubs and the sport as a whole.

“We, RL Commercial and the RFL believe improvement in each of these areas is possible for all clubs over time and is vital to transforming and future-proofing rugby league. Ultimately, we want to be in a position down the line where the top-tier league is full of Category A clubs and being expanded.”

The grading criteria recommendations were determined using a data-led approach powered by Endeavor Analytics, a leading data services provider which sits alongside IMG in the Endeavor network.

Seven League, IMG’s digital team, is continuing to work with RL Commercial on the sport’s digital strategy, while IMG sister company and cultural marketing agency 160over90 expects to complete the wider rebrand of the men’s and women’s Super League competitions later this year ahead of the 2024 season launch.