The State of It — Rugby League almost 20 years into the new millennium.

Paul McNally
Feb 12, 2019 · 11 min read

Paul McNally spent 15 seasons in the backroom at Salford Red Devils, saw more than most folk see in a lifetime in sport with several owners and countless CEOs along the way. Maybe he came up with a few thoughts and ideas worth listening to along the way. Let’s have a look.

I’ve wanted to write this for a while but I’ve let the dust settle for a few months since leaving the sport and moving into the third sector. I now work for a fabulous organisation helping people at the end of their lives and with terminal illness. A bit of a dramatic change of environment for sure.

It’s not all about Salford, in fact none of it is really — albeit that inevitably I’ll use them as an example in places simply because I know how it works there.

I will start by saying, as is the case with many of the ‘smaller’ teams in the sport the people behind the scenes are relentless with their support for growing the game — often in extremely difficult circumstances. The fact that this effort isn’t turned into magical new numbers of supporter should highlight that, well, it’s not that easy.

Just because you go to a game, it doesn’t make you a fan. We need to stop thinking of them as such.

Firstly, I want to talk about the difference between attendance and fans/supporters. At Salford, as everywhere, there was a constant drive to get new faces in through the turnstiles but I believe, now more than ever, that there are fundamental issues with just persuading people to come to a game and assuming that they will love it from there on in. The problem with that train of thought is that its wrong.

For every company incentive scheme, for every school assembly attended by players, what is the absolute best you can expect? If you have 100 kids (I’m using 100 as my maths is terrible and it will make it easier later on!) all sat in front of your big name players hearing about how amazing rugby league is, how many do you actually think are going to be inspired enough to go to a game. Let’s say 10% — (so ten!), which, from experience, is probably high even if you give them all free tickets.

So then you repeat that across 50 schools in the city — which is very difficult if not impossible to do anyway logistically — and you have reached the grand total of 500 new faces. Good start (apart from you wouldn’t get that high a number.)

Then they all come to a game and a percentage (let’s say 20%) decide they will come to another game — as long as it’s free probably), so now you are playing Wakey in three weeks that number from that effort is down to maybe 100. If you are very lucky.

Then at some point you have to start charging them…

Let’s say for the sake of fantasy that that 100 keep coming. At Salford that maybe boosts the attendance from 3000 to 3.1k — is that the magic figure that stops the internet warlords slagging the Red Devils off? Even if it’s Saints going from 12k to 12.1k was it actually worth the effort?

Repeat that process with large companies and businesses and the numbers are not going to be any better. You could literally have your entire backroom staff out every day of the week to get a couple of hundred on the gate.

Then, the week after you need to go out and see a different 400/500 just to tread water. Then the game after another 500. Times 14 games. It’s bonkers. And remember, these are working off numbers I think are probably artificially high.

This piecemeal approach to trying to get a bigger attendance is farcical both in the short term, and especially in the longer term. These people that you are managing to attract through the door aren’t supporters — they have no skin in the game, they are coming along for a day trip — in much the same way as they might visit the Christmas Market, or Sea World occasionally.

Some may love it so much that they turn into true fans but the number is so minuscule if you aren’t questioning the methods by now you are missing the point.

The internet, Twitter etc is always full of “get into every school and give them tickets”, “visit every company”, “offer tickets to every nurse” — always under the illusion that continues to damage the game that all we have to do to get more fans is expose people to the game because it is so amazing how could they not fall in love with it. For starters, you can’t “get into every school” — most of them couldn’t care less about rugby league. The vast majority of teachers will not get involved in a Thursday night class trip to Salford v Huddersfield.

It’s fantastic to us because our parents took us. Because we played it at school in the depths of mudbath pitches as we barrelled into puberty. We grew up hating or loving Moz.

It is not fantastic to a new family with young kids who sit there hearing the ‘Rugby League is a family game” message five times in a afternoon.

I’ve spoken to plenty of people at length while I was at Salford that I believe the true danger to the game at places like the AJ Bell is the generational gap in the fanbase which has crept along and gone un-noticed.

My dad used to run the Junior Devils supporter’s club and it was something that got many kids my age into coming. Now we are all 40-odd and many of us still taking our kids now to this day. However, once it stopped what happened?

The kids who are now in their thirties never went. They clearly aren’t taking their kids. In ten years’ time their kids won’t ever take their kids and so on. This needs addressing now.

It’s not something you can fix with an assembly or a stand in a Tesco foyer. Believe me I’ve spent hours in one with Garreth Carvell.

The problem is similar to politics. To start to fix it now won’t show any benefits for years and the people tasked with getting attendances in now won’t likely be around then. They need to get bums on seats right now, not in a decade and they haven’t the time or capacity to work on both.

Yeah that’s great, but like a politician who is only trying to survive until the next Meaningful Vote it just means it’s never going to get fixed and only going to get worse, especially with less kids playing the game properly in schools.

One club who I know have put years into building their junior core in an impressive way is Huddersfield and if the stories I heard before I left the sport are true, now, after about six years they are starting to see a benefit which is really good news and should be used as a yardstick.

The craziness of rugby league ticketing

Hands up if anybody can tell me of any entertainment industry — other than theme parks where prices are artificially inflated anyway) where the price of a ticket for an unwanted seat rockets up in price on the day to help dissuade the casual visitor from coming at all.

We have to accept that the demand to fill all our stadia for more than 95% of the time is not there so, taking that into account ratcheting up the price when people aren’t interested enough anyway seems a tad hare-brained to me at best.

What you gain in getting somebody to commit to coming you could just as easily be losing in off-the-cuff trade. Plus the fact you make the pricing information of your tickets so incomprehensible to the layman it just becomes too much hassle to buy one.

Theatres from Broadway to the Lowry actually slash the prices of unsold seats for performances that aren’t selling out. Why would you not? If the seat is empty it’s costing you money? Although I’m not saying it should be like those episodes of The Apprentice where they are all belting around trying to to sell a sausage pizza for a quid because the task is ending.

The reason you can’t do any of this of course is (and this won’t be popular) because of the entitled life blood of the Clubs — the season ticket holders. Always the first to decry the RFL and the Clubs for not doing more to raise attendances but the first to demand a refund if a Club dares reduce the price of the Catalan game to a tenner.

“What’s the point in me buying a season ticket if they are just going to do that?” — I tell you what, do your club a favour and don’t get one then. You will probably still go to every game anyway and actually put more money into the Club (especially if you pay on the day!)

I just don’t get season tickets for any sporting club from a business point of view other than the top half of the Premier League where a game is sold out and demand decrees a pre-purchase.

They benefit loyalty I get that and of course that is important but it is strangling the ability to market to new people.

Yes the clubs need income in the off-season — this is not the place to go into in-depth discussions of rolling Direct Debit membership schemes but there are ways around the issue if you scratch hard enough and plan.

When you sit down budgeting for the season and you factor in a £25 ticket prices it’s just fantasy. Most fans are paying maybe £14 at best. The only ones who are paying £25 are people who don’t know if they like it enough to keep coming! And they have to really bloody like something to pay £25 every two weeks — + the kids, plus parking and so on. And we wonder why they don’t come back.

If they want to come back though, just buy a season ticket you will save loads.

Yes that’s true — if we are prepared to go all in and commit to coming to every game. Families have shit to do. I can’t commit to bringing the kids and missus to 14 Sunday afternoons a year in advance and I’m one of the fans!

Holidays, illness, visits to the grandparents, birthday parties, football matches etc. Pretty soon it’s obvious I’m only coming to the occasional game. That’s before you factor in Thursday games, Friday games, Saturday games, Sunday games, Wednesday morning games. Soon, not coming becomes more of a habit than actually attending.

I worked out once you only need to miss about three games a season to realistically make a season ticket unviable) and when it’s -2 at kick off in February and the kids won’t sit outside, well there’s once of them on week one of the season.

The big fear at clubs seems to be that if you did away with season tickets and the club was doing poorly and languishing close to relegation people would just stop going, whereas if they have bought their ticket already they are obliged to come.

Fine. I get that. But this should put some emphasis on the clubs to actually provide a standard of entertainment on and off the field and not go through the motions. It’s all about value for money as in any walk of life.

Some of my favourite seasons watching City have been the ones wallowing around in the lower divisions scratching round for points to survive. I’d be more worried about the season ticket I sold to a Hull FC fan who is then expected to drag themselves to seven meaningless games in the Super 8s.

You also, as a home club have to factor in that the away team keep 25% of the pre-sold ticket price which I think is absolutely bonkers and is actually only serving to inflate prices further to offset losses. Say Wigan/Leeds/Saints etc sell 2000 tickets at 25 quid a piece for their away game — they keep 25% of that — it’s to encourage away clubs to try and sell more. Okaaaay, but if your club only takes 400 or so to games that is an income stream that isn’t available to all. And then you get slapped in the chops by losing 25% off your biggest home games when Wigan come to town as well.

I’m sure the answer is “get more fans then” for the smaller clubs but say that’s not something that can instantly be sorted out with the best will in the world. How do you try and negate this loss in income if you are Salford, Huddersfield, Wakey and so on — you sneak a couple of quid on the ticket price. You almost have to in order to survive. You don’t say that of course — inflation / Brexit etc. Well done. Before you know it your home game against Huddersfield costs more than a Champions League football match up the road — and if you are family who fancies taking your kids to sport every couple of months…. well, you work it out.

When you put it as starkly as that, that some of the money you are paying to watch your team is actually to offfset the losses caused by actually playing one of the big boys — well that can’t be right can it? Surely the advantage of being well supported should stop at your own bigger home attendance?

On top of that, the extra slices of the TV money when you are constantly on TV also wildly increases some club’s income. It’s a wonder half the league survives.

You are always going to have teams that attract more for the TV companies — natural selection and all that but I think the income comparisons are scary. We did a little research back in The Willows days about how much Salford had made from extra TV games compared to the bigger clubs and the difference was in the millions over a ten year period. Put in players terms maybe a couple of big name players a season at the time. Just funded by being on telly. Better players mean better teams, better teams are on telly more. Circle of life as Elton pointed out.

This isn’t a poke at the bigger teams don’t get me wrong. Every league has and needs its power players, but it does piss me off when internet fans just sit there giving it the big one on Twitter about how the likes of Salford and Huddersfield don’t bring anything to Super League because of their fan base. There but for the grace of God.

You can’t just measure attendance on a level playing field if that’s the only thing you are going to measure equally. There are factors around attendance that are never even considered that goes far further than whether a club sticks a few A3 posters on the railings at the end of the street.

I could go on, and probably will at some point. There’s loads more angles to cover but if you aren’t bored already you would be soon enough, especially once I start going on about how Magic Weekend distorts the entire season for very little commercial gain.

I don’t have the answers other than be bold. Quite possibly, be bold or die. But equally be bold and fair.

I’ll tell you my solution to saving the game one day and it doesn’t involve Eddie Hearn. It’s pretty radical though and you’d hate it. For a bit.

Until you looked back and realised I was right.

Paul McNally has been published worldwide including articles for FHM, BSkyB, The Commonwealth Games, the BBC and the Manchester Evening News. He has edited market-leading leisure magazines and now heads up the marketing department for an organisation helping people with terminal and life-limiting illness. All this after working for 15 years in the comms department in of a professional sports club.

He drinks a lot of coffee too. Probably too much.

His two non-fiction novels ‘The Peasant Wagon’ and ‘Gym Dodgers’ continue to edge ever closer to release.

Follow him on Twitter @IAmPaulMcNally

Paul McNally

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Former videogames and sports journo now working in the third sector for an amazing cancer charity. Views are my own, which means they are correct.

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