It’s an idea that has been floated around for a number of years. But is now finally the time to expand the Super League to 14 teams?
There is a balancing act between maintaining the integrity and the quality of what is the pinnacle of rugby league in Europe, but also in expanding the competition, introducing new fans to the sport and even opening up the tournament to new teams from overseas.
The feeling among many in the game – including, notably, the Bradford Bulls coach John Kear – is that the present fixture format isn’t working. The introduction of the six ‘loop’ fixtures has been met with a mooted response, with some turned off by the prospect of playing the same teams as many as five times per season.
As Kear said: “you get sick of watching Wigan versus Warrington when you get around to what is game five or game six between the clubs that season.”
The Magic round of games is universally popular, and that would likely stay in some format, but increasing the number of teams in the Super League from 12 to 14 would enable 26 games to be played – 13 home and away – with a Magic Weekend too.
A straightforward system of promotion/relegation, with the top four teams in the regular season battling it out in the play-offs for a chance to play in the Grand Final, simplifies matters while maintaining competitiveness and ensuring that all teams have something to play for each campaign.
The reality is that the likes of Leeds Rhinos, St. Helens and Wigan Warriors will continue to dominate the bookmakers’ Super League rugby league odds because they are the strongest teams, but long term the hope is that by expanding the competition the quality gap will soon close.
The Championship could easily be reshuffled within a couple of seasons via promotion and relegation, and promoting teams up the ladder should, in theory, help to eventually improve the quality and competitiveness of the second tier.
One potential spanner in the works could be the various broadcasting deals that the Super League have in place. Right now, revenue from Sky Sports in the UK is separated between 12 teams, and so an increase to 14 sides would mean each makes less money from such a crucial commercial partnership.
Growing the Game
When Paris Saint-Germain were among the founding teams in the Super League, it opened the door for outfits from outside of the UK to be part of rugby league’s premier competition in the Northern Hemisphere.
The Catalans Giants soon followed suit, and they were later joined by the Toronto Wolfpack – proof positive that rugby league is a global concern.
Expanding the Super League to 14 teams offers an opportunity for more international teams to compete at the highest level, thus enhancing the visibility of the sport around the world.
Of course, they will need to achieve this ascension through the appropriate channel, e.g. by being promoted from the Championship, but Toulouse are already knocking on that particular door.
In 2021, the Ottawa Aces will join the pyramid in League 1, while there is a proposal for New York City to enter at the same level – they would be the first professional rugby league outfit from America.
Eventually, the hope – not from traditionalists, perhaps – is that New York can ascend to the Super League, introducing a whole new audience to the sport. The switch to a 14-team Super League would certainly aid that quest.