Rugby League is braced for its biggest shake-up since the dawn of the Super League era 26 years ago when global sports media giant IMG unveils its blueprint for the future of the game in Manchester on Wednesday.
IMG agreed a 12-year “strategic partnership” with the Rugby Football League earlier this year and has been given the task of restructuring and re-imagining the domestic game as a means to maximise its commercial potential.
Officials will reveal their proposals to the 37 current professional and semi-professional clubs, who will have an opportunity to put them to the vote, before presenting them to the media.
An expanded, 14-team top flight or a two-tiered Super League of 20 teams are two of the rumoured conclusions, potentially to involve a contentious licensing model and the consequent scrapping of promotion and relegation.
But veteran coach John Kear, a two-time Challenge Cup winner who is currently in charge of Championship side Widnes, says structural changes must reflect a long-term strategy to make the best of what the game has to offer.
“It doesn’t matter how many clubs are in each division,” Kear told the PA news agency. “You need to decide on the number of the weeks you want to play, then come up with a fixture formula that incorporates the Challenge Cup and the international game.
“The length of the season and the number of fixtures are key. There need to be fewer, more focused fixtures. When Wigan play Warrington up to five times in a season it loses its impact. The fixtures need to have stories behind them that the marketing men are able to sell.
“I don’t rule anything out, including licensing. What is more important is that the clubs involved are sustainable, and that they decide upon a policy and they stick with it. The only constant we have had in rugby league is change.”
Some clubs outside Super League have expressed concerns at being cast adrift by the findings, either by being denied the opportunity to aspire towards reaching the topflight, or being forced out of a tighter semi-professional set-up entirely.
IMG’s proposals come in the week that Batley Bulldogs are preparing to face full-time rivals Leigh Centurions for an improbable place in next season’s Super League, and for the club’s chief executive Paul Harrison it is essential that the possibility for such fairytales remains.
“The chances of us beating Leigh and getting in Super League are still incredibly slim,” Harrison said. “But why should our dream of somehow getting there be denied?
“There need to be changes but it has be about more than Super League with the rest of the game cast away. The uncertainty is a nightmare and the proposals need to be clear and capable of taking the whole game forward.”
Officials will certainly hope to avoid the kind of controversy that beset the birth of Super League, brainchild of the late former Wigan chairman Maurice Lindsay and Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB.
Along with the radical switch to summer rugby was the proposal for a series of mergers – including the two Hull clubs – that were quickly shelved after a significant backlash by supporters.