In Toronto the reality of Super League shutting down on March 16th really hit home a week and a half later when the Wolfpack announced a temporary layoff of their Canadian staff – a move that affected at least 12 full-time employees and drove home the seriousness of the economic uncertainty facing the league. And while SL was one of the last major sports leagues in the world to finally cave in and postpone their season, it held out specifically because – in a largely gate-driven league – they were trying to avoid the financial downfall they must now face during the great pandemic.
There are some who say the spread of the corona virus merely expedited the financial crisis Super League must now deal with – that the structure of the league has long been broken and the capitalization of the sport has been slow and uneven. Marketing too. Much has been made about the impending “make-or-break” TV deal renegotiations with Sky Sports Network that will come at the end of this season, a deal that must be largely improved for the league if it is to go boldly towards their expansion future. It must be for more money and for better and more consistent coverage but without eye-popping ratings and projections one of their strongest leverage points is the expansion plan – a chance for brands, networks and programming to cross the pond – which they have done a poor job of extolling.
By leaving their players out to play longer than most expected – and much to the players’ dismay – Super League took a risk in waiting to postpone the campaign. Health concerns reached a pitch, game receipts were already dwindling and the delay to suspend the season looked exactly like what it was – desperation. The players have since been asked to take a pay cut for their troubles while sports continue to be put on hold and clubs like the Wolfpack have had to scale back staff, shutter arenas and even cease online operations. There is no money being made and a real concern exists among SL officials that some clubs may not survive the outbreak as-is. This has reintroduced the idea of restructuring – specifically the idea of eliminating either the League 1 or Championship division or both and creating a two-tier system with less teams. The idea of eliminating relegation has also been talked about although that debate has been raging for years.
The National Rugby League in Australia announced a hope that they could return to play at the end of May, an encouraging sign for Super League but a premature declaration nonetheless. Two months is far away, farther than usual in the current climate. The NRL is also under added pressure from their broadcasting partner Channel 9, with a company spokesperson stating:
“Nine has invested hundreds of millions in this game over decades and we now find they have profoundly wasted those funds with very little to fall back on to support the clubs, the players and supporters.”
It is hard to believe that some of Super League’s issues aren’t being discussed while on hiatus as it looks to avoid cancelling the season, which remains a possibility. Still, the focus of officials is on getting the 2020 season back on track and mitigating the damage done to their franchises, particularly the smaller organizations that are reliant on ticket sales to turn a profit each year. Without a season the damage could be irreparable for some clubs.
In any case Super League will be a different animal whenever it returns. If this year can be salvaged the likelihood of a reduced schedule and/or reduced game times is a certainty. While fans will have a certain level of withdrawal they will also have a new routine and life to catch up on and work to find. Luring them back to arenas might require costly incentives and innovative marketing. If the season does not resume then the shift towards 2021 is immediate meaning the TV deal, expansion review, player salaries and restructuring talk are all suddenly jumbled together on the table and the changes that come from sorting them all out could result in some shock-to-the-system changes to begin next season.
Super League – like the rest of us – has been in isolation and like all of us it has a chance to emerge stronger, wiser and more prepared to take on the new way of things. Fans should hold and brace. Changes are coming.