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IMG’s rugby league reform plans backed by clubs

Totally Wicked Stadium in St Helens, England

Featured image credit: Rob Ridley

The Rugby League Council, the sport’s decision-making body which comprises representatives from all three professional competitions and the community game in the UK, has today (Wednesday) voted in favour of Club Grading – the first element of the Reimagining Rugby League strategy which includes assessing clubs on their stadium infrastructure.

In a Special General Meeting in Huddersfield, the Yorkshire town where the rebel rugby code was formed as the Northern Union in 1895, the recommendations were supported by a majority of clubs in each of the three professional competitions, and received unanimous support from the community game.

Ten of the 11 Super League clubs voted in favour, with one abstention. The 12th club, Catalans Dragons, were not entitled to vote. Eight of the 13 Championship clubs voted in favour, with one abstention. The 14th club, Toulouse Olympique, was not entitled to vote, like its French counterpart in the top tier. Seven of the 11 League One clubs voted in favour, with one abstention.

The total number of votes in favour was therefore 32, with seven opposed, and three abstentions. Under the weighting system for Council votes which ensures an equal weight for Super League clubs on the one hand, and Championship/League One on the other, there was an 86%-14% result.

The IMG agency last month presented to the Rugby League Council a recommended grading criteria to define how Super League, Championship and League One clubs will be assessed from 2025. 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 Rugby Football League (RFL) and Super League Europe to reimagine rugby league and its competitions in the UK.

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.

Other criteria include fandom (25%), performance (25%), finances (25%) and catchment (10%). Earlier this month, several amendments were made to the grading criteria, with clubs better rewarded for the extent of their community engagement, while the finance pillar was downgraded.

The catchment category was renamed community and will include points under the proposed model for clubs’ positive impact in the communities in which the sport is based and played. 

Simon Johnson, chair of the RFL and a board member of Rugby League Commercial, said today: “This has been a highly significant day for the sport and I am proud of the vote of the Council today.

“Our clubs were unanimous in supporting the 12-year strategic partnership with IMG when it was proposed in 2022, and have now given strong support for the Club Grading recommendation which is crucial in allowing the sport to grow and fulfil its potential – on the domestic and international stage.

“We thank the team at IMG for the detailed and dedicated work that underpinned this recommendation. Our own teams at the RFL and RL Commercial will continue to work with IMG and other parts of the Endeavor organisation, notably Seven League and 160over90, to advance the other six recommendations included in Reimagining Rugby League.

“In terms of Club Grading, it is important to stress again that there will be no changes to the existing arrangements for promotion and relegation this season.

“In the closing stages of the season this autumn, illustrative gradings for all clubs will be published, providing all with a clear idea of where they stand, with 12 months until the gradings are updated to determine membership of the top tier competition in 2025. We will also continue to work with clubs to develop the Minimum Standards that will sit alongside the Grading Criteria and continue to consult with Council.

“It is also important to reinforce that this outcome, whilst being crucial to the future growth of the sport, is only the first step. Work is currently underway to further develop the domestic calendar for 2024, deliver certainty to the international calendar and continue the digital transformation within rugby league that will continue to lay the foundations for a greater return from the sport’s assets in the future.”

Grading is set to come into full effect from 2025, with the top-tier league featuring 12 clubs including all ‘Category A’ teams and the highest-ranking ‘Category B’ outfits. 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.

Super League clubs currently engaged in infrastructure projects include the likes of Hull KR, Castleford Tigers and Wakefield Trinity.