We know we're getting a new side in Super League for 2021. We know the initial criteria they must meet, and the more detailed criteria that they will then be assessed and compared under. We don't know yet who the new side will be.
I want to make my number one preference for the 12th side in 2021 clear. I would have much preferred a competent and functional Toronto Wolfpack to have been in the competition. Through the combined actions of David Argyle, Carlo LiVolsi and Robert Elstone, this just wasn't going to happen. It's a sad, unfortunate and regrettable state of affairs for the trans-Atlantic proposition.
Of the other options, my immediate reaction was Toulouse Olympique. Get a second French side in. But it's not my decision to make.
To be fair to Super League and the RFL, the openly published Application Process and Criteria document has good detail, reads largely sensibly and looks pretty fair. Lets see how it might work in practice. I'll give my subjective rankings in a conclusion below, then I'll cover how I would see the Toronto Wolfpack faring with this assessment criteria too.
Three initial criteria must be met for an application to get the chance to get to the next stage of assessment. So who does it rule in or out?
1. Club was in the Super League or finished in the Championship Top 6 in either 2018 or 2019
Eight clubs meet this measure. Bradford Bulls, Featherstone Rovers, Halifax, Leigh Centurions, London Broncos, Toulouse Olympique, Widnes Vikings and York City Knights.
2. Stadium has an operational capacity of 5,000* (* New Stadiums or redevelopments of existing stadiums will only be taken into account if the Panel is satisfied (at its complete discretion) that the Stadium will be open / redevelopment finished by the start of the 2021 season)
This potentially takes one side out of the running, with a question mark over another.
Trailfinders Sports Ground in Ealing, London Broncos' home since 2016, only has a capacity of 4,000. They made some speedy upgrades for their 2019 Super League season but still needed stadium dispensation to compete. They'll need to do even more, even faster, to have something solid in place to show satisfactory redevelopment plans to get another 1,000 on in time for 2021 season kick off. The Broncos are at serious risk of missing this criteria.
York City Knights are waiting to move in to their 8,000+ York Community Stadium, but that new stadium keeps getting delayed. So there has to be a question over it's readiness for March 2021. That said, York's recent home of Bootham Crescent should still be available in the meantime, so that would fit the 5,000 capacity anyway. They should be fine on this criteria.
The rest are still fully in play:
Bradford Bulls - either Crown Flatt (5,100) or Odsal (potentially 22,000+)
Featherstone Rovers - Post Office Road (9,850)
Halifax - The Shay Stadium (14,061)
Leigh Centurions - Leigh Sports Village (12,000)
Toulouse Olympique - Stade Ernest-Wallon (19,000)
Widnes Vikings - Halton Stadium (13,350)
3. Club has an average attendance of at least 2,000 in the 2018 or 2019 Regular Seasons
From all the details a quick internet search throws up, this takes Halifax out of the picture, with 1,761 in 2019 and 1,752 in 2018. So, they are definitely out.
The rest of the eight satisfy this one:
Bradford Bulls - 4,339 in 2019, albeit that was at Odsal, where they may not be in 2021.
Featherstone Rovers - 2,316 in 2018 & 2,235 in 2019
Leigh Centurions - 3,539 in 2018 & 3,259 in 2019
London Broncos - 2,014 in 2019, as a Super League side
Toulouse Olympique - 2,437 in 2018 & 2,488 in 2019, whilst playing at the smaller and further from city centre Stade Ernest Argelès
Widnes Vikings - 4,898 in 2018 as a Super League side & 4,321 in 2019
York City Knights - 2,125 in 2019, whilst playing at Bootham Crescent
The above seven clubs stay in the running. However, I'm not sure whether Widnes Vikings have an appetite to apply at this stage, so it could just be six left in the running. They can stay in my process though.
London Broncos, fittingly for a 2020 decision, have an asterisk on their application already. It would be with a very heavy heart that I would take London out of the running, so I hope they can find that 1,000 extra capacity somewhere, somehow. Although, all would by no means be lost in London. The community game is strong now and produces Super League calibre talent even without a Super League team present. The Broncos spending most of the last half-decade out of the top tier hasn't stopped the community game in and around the capital. Long may it continue.
I do feel it also warrants mention that Toronto Wolfpack would have satisfied all three of the Initial Criteria. They of course finished top of the Championship in 2018 and 2019. Their main home base Lamport Stadium has a seated capacity of 9,600, with Wolfpack games fitting in some standing room beer garden fans too. Their regular season averages were 5,781 in 2018 & 6,521 in 2019.
Six categories have been outlined in the Application Process and Criteria document. They each have a different number of areas in them, varying assessment guidance and will carry a different, but unknown, weighting in the final decision process.
I'm not going to run through all parts of the six categories in full detail. For a start, I don't have all the evidence or material to do that. So this will be a mostly subjective run through, using my personal and hugely underinformed opinionated assessment rankings.
a. Market Size and Commercial Potential
Looking at 6 different areas, and with most of the information to be provided by the clubs themselves, I can only guess at much of this part of the application process.
We've already shown some details above around attendances. You would expect that broadly, season ticket numbers, merchandise sales, Our League membership numbers and fan database sizes will corollate with attendances. Bradford Bulls and Widnes Vikings would rank highest, London Broncos would rank lowest, especially if you compare like with like and look at just Championship crowd figures. They wouldn't make the initial attendance criteria without that Super League bump for 2020.
I can't profess to have any meaningful knowledge about the position of relative clubs with sponsors and commercial partners. You would guess the bigger city names of London Broncos and Toulouse Olympique have a strong relative position, and of the others Bradford Bulls and Widnes Vikings are the bigger brand names given their relative more recent success and time at the top. But it's just a guess.
Community footprint is hard to for me judge, but should be easy for the clubs to present their cases on. One thing we do know about Rugby League is that there is strong community links across the board. None of these are 'new' clubs, Toulouse Olympique date back over 80 years for example. Even those from outside or on the edge of the heartlands, like London Broncos and York City Knights, can show good community game ties, with sides from junior through to masters in their locality. The likes of Featherstone Rovers, Leigh Centurions, Bradford Bulls or Widnes Vikings should be able to show good evidence in this criteria. London and Toulouse may have the opportunity to show the most potential footprint, beyond what they already do.
Social media is something we can take our own objective look at on, certainly follower numbers are easy to check:
Bradford Bulls 28k Facebook page likes 34.5k Twitter followers 12.3k Instagram followers
Featherstone Rovers 14.2k Facebook page likes 15.6k Twitter followers 4.8k Instagram followers
Leigh Centurions 11.9k Facebook page likes 23.2k Twitter followers 8.2k Instagram followers
London Broncos 11.4k Facebook page likes 26.6k Twitter followers 5.7k Instagram followers
Toulouse Olympique 11.5k Facebook page likes 8.2k Twitter followers 6.5k Instagram followers
Widnes Vikings 40.6k Facebook page likes 40k Twitter followers 14.5k Instagram followers
York City Knights 5.1k Facebook page likes 15.9k Twitter followers 4.6k Instagram followers
For all that we like what York City Knights have done in the social and digital area for a few years now, their follower numbers don't match up to the other clubs. Bradford Bulls and Widnes Vikings numbers give them the strongest case. Not much between the others. Toulouse Olympique Twitter numbers might have to be viewed in context. Catalans underperform the other existing Super League clubs on this platform too, which could be a language thing.
I'm not sure how great an extra indicator club website traffic is for those making the assessment. But, something I would have wanted to see judged in some way is each club's media penetration outside of normal Rugby League press coverage. How many national news articles do they generate, for example. Possibly even national brand awareness. You would think Bradford Bulls and London Broncos get the most penetration there.
b. Future Performance and Growth Plans
This all comes down to the clubs' own sales and marketing plans. Which I won't get to see. So I can't possibly comment.
c. Playing Performance
This is going to be assessed under four different areas, and probably with the 2021 playing squad being part of that, opens itself up to the most fan conjecture.
Let's get finishing positions for 2018 & 2019 out of the way first.
Bradford Bulls: They were in League 1 in 2018, finishing 3rd and going up through the extended playoffs. They were 6th in the 2019 Championship season. Basically, they come last of the seven in recent on-field performance.
Featherstone Rovers: They won the old Championship Shield in 2018, after coming 5th in the regular season. Then they finished 5th again in 2019, but made it to the promotion play-off final, losing to Toronto. That promotion final spot, as well as being unbeaten in the brief start to 2020, if what Fev see as their big calling card in this category.
Leigh Centurions: They finished 6th in 2018's Championship season, losing the Shield final against Featherstone. They were 4th in 2019.
London Broncos: They won promotion by beating Toronto in the 2018 Million Pound Game, after a 2nd place regular season finish and a good Super 8 Qualifiers campaign. In 2019 they defied expectations somewhat by being competitive in 2020, finishing last, but only on points difference.
Toulouse Olympique: 3rd in the 2018 Championship regular season, entertaining everyone in the Qualifiers too. They were 2nd in 2019, and the only side to beat Toronto in the regular season.
Widnes Vikings: They were a Super League club in 2018, albeit finishing a distant bottom, and finishing second bottom in the Qualifiers, to relegate themselves to the Championship. An 11th place finish in 2019 was in part down to the points deduction they faced that year, something that would hurt them significantly if they did choose to apply.
York City Knights: 2nd in League 1 in 2018 to earn promotion. They finished 3rd in a very strong 2019 Championship performance following that promotion.
Without knowing everything about the relative backroom staffs, we do know something about each of the head coaches. Uncle TwoSkulls John Kear at Bradford Bulls has achieved lots in his extensive career, no doubt he could do the job at the top level. James Webster at Featherstone Rovers and Danny Ward at London Broncos have Super League experience already. James Ford at York City Knights and Sylvain Houles at Toulouse Olympique have both become highly thought of, producing entertaining and competitive sides in recent years. Leigh Centurions' John Duffy maybe isn't as highly regarded, but has good experience at the Championship level and a little experience at the international level with Scotland too. Newly appointed Simon Finnigan at Widnes Vikings only has one year at League 1 on his head coaching resume, potentially putting the Vikings in the weakest spot for this area.
Just a short note on training facilities. Lots of the sides train where they play. Many below Super League don't have their own gyms, or at least don't have advanced facilities. Most will be of the same standard as each other I would guess.
So, 2021 squads then. I'll group the sides in to three ranks, with the ones I see ready to be competitive now in the first group, and the least likely to compete in the third group.
Listeners to our show will know that Featherstone Rovers, Leigh Centurions and Toulouse Olympique have been recruiting big for 2021. They probably tie for having the best squads for next year so far. We talk about another ex-Super League signing or re-signing for these three sides every week.
York City Knights too have signed up a number of Super League veterans to their ranks, maybe though it's mostly players at the end of their time. Widnes Vikings have a good mix of experience and talented youth, albeit not great depth after some of the losses from the 2020 squad.
London Broncos have little of their Super League side left, and they're losing key players in their spine. Although, they have a promising development system and they showed for 2019 they could unearth some real talent at short notice. Bradford Bulls look the weakest on paper, with much of their 2021 recruitment being upgrading young reserves on to first team deals.
d. Facilities and ability to host live TV Broadcast and key partners
This covers three areas, one being capacity, which I've already talked about above. The second and third are about standard and quality of the facilities.
If Bradford Bulls revert to Odsal, there is some work to do there given the place has been dormant for sometime and was starting to crumble before that. Otherwise, all the sides play out of credible facilities that are better than some currently in Super League. All of them have been able to facilitate broadcast games in recent years, although Crown Flatt would have limited recent experience in doing that.
They're all ok, but they aren't all equal. Some of the potential applicants come with high class facilities. Others have facilities the equal of some existing Super League ones. One stands out as being weaker than the others.
The Leigh Sports Village is modern, it's been used for Challenge Cup semi-finals and international games. It ranks high. Similarly, Stade Ernest-Wallon has been renovated well in recent times and has also hosted internationals. And if the York Community Stadium is fully operational, it will be a brand new high quality facility.
Halton Stadium has lost some of it's shine in recent years. It's still a very good facility, not quite top drawer anymore. Post Office Road has had as many naming rights changes as it has improvements in recent years. Its now a really good facility, better than local Super League rivals Wakefield and Castleford. Odsal and Crown Flatt rank similarly, although for different reasons. Crown Flatt is charming, but small, Odsal is decaying but big and somewhat iconic. If York City Knights are forced back to Bootham Crescent, it will do. It's old and has some challenges, but it will do.
Ealing Trailfinders ranks last sadly for me. It's a community sports club with some temporary stands. It is a really good base for the London Broncos club to settle down it's community and training roots, but it isn't a top level match-day stadium, for all it's niceness.
e. Finance and Sustainability
Five areas judged mostly by club provided or confirmed information that frankly I won't get to see. You can't imagine any of the clubs aren't a 'going concern' if they're applying for Super League, although the ownership and future status of Toronto Wolfpack was in the air for their application I suppose.
Widnes Vikings had an administration in 2019. That should count against them in this section if they were to apply. Bradford Bulls, of course, Leigh Centurions and Featherstone Rovers have all had financial problems in the relatively recent past, but most of that before the cut off dates in the criteria. There were rumours of late wage payments at Bradford in 2019, but these were denied and not substantiated. York City Knights too had some difficulties before the current Jon Flatman regime took over in 2016.
Leigh Centurions did lose an employment tribunal in 2019 around unfair wage deductions, which might be considered but isn't specifically listed in the guidance. There were issues in September 2018 too, when the club reportedly failed to pay players after not agreeing severance packages, after the club tried to cut ties with most of it's squad following a disappointing season.
London Broncos are hugely reliant on David Hughes, but that's not really much different to many clubs. I don't know anything about the finances at Toulouse Olympique, which in Rugby League terms, probably means they're not too bad.
f. Ownership, Management and Governance
Five assessment areas again here, most for the clubs to provide evidence on. The last one, around compliance with the operational rules, can be laid out objectively. Of course, we can also have our own subjective views on some of the characters running some of the clubs applying. Luckily, the objective can cover off some of that for me without me having to say anything risky.
Leigh Centurions owner Derek Beaumont received a £7,500 fine in June 2018 for breaches of four RFL Operational Rules, relating comment he posted on social media. He was also found to be breaching the RFL's Respect Policy and Social Media Code of Conduct. It was by no means was his first such offence, but the only one in the time window the assessment criteria sets out.
Featherstone Rovers were hit with a £10,000 fine in July 2019 for breaches of rules relating to crowd behaviour. in a match against Bradford. They were praised for their proactive approach to the issue, which may be looked on favourably as mitigation for what happened. Although, the incident leading to the charge did quickly follow another similar charge earlier that year for a game against Rochdale.
There isn't anything recently of note for the other clubs. Although, whilst it doesn't fit into the specific criteria in the assessment document, it probably isn't great timing for York City Knights that new signing Ryan Atkins gets hit with a ban for betting on a match involving his former side Wakefield.
This is based on the limited info I know, and without understanding what weighting the panel will settle on for each area. It will therefore be speculative and subjective! (so don't lose your mind over it)
For category a. I would rank them:
1 - Bradford, 2 - Widnes, 3 - Toulouse, 4 - London, 5 - Leigh, 6 - Featherstone, 7 - York
I can't rank category b.
For category c. I would rank them:
1 - Toulouse, 2 - Leigh, 3 - Featherstone, 4 - London, 5 - York, 6 - Widnes, 7 - Bradford
For category d. I would rank them:
1 - Leigh, 2 - Toulouse, 3 - York, 4 - Widnes, 5 - Featherstone, 6 - Bradford, 7 - London
For category e. I would rank them:
1 - Toulouse, 2 - London, 3 - York, 4 - Featherstone, 5 - Leigh, 6 - Bradford, 7 - Widnes
For category f. I would rank them:
1 - London, 2 - Toulouse, 3 - York, 4 - Widnes, 5 - Bradford, 6 - Featherstone, 7 - Leigh
Altogether, I reach my hugely underinformed and highly personal rankings of:
1 - Toulouse Olympique (9)
2 - London Broncos (18)
3 - Leigh Centurions (20)
4 - York City Knights (21)
5 - Widnes Vikings (23)
6 - Featherstone Rovers (24)
7 - Bradford Bulls (25)
What about Toronto?
As I said in the opening, I would have liked a competent and functional Toronto Wolfpack to be in Super League. I don't think we ever got that. But how would I rank them?
Clearly they would be very strong in category a. For crowds, they beat the rest. However, they've never had a 10,000 home crowd and the official capacity of the stadium is below that figure. So suggesting a 10,000 average when they can get back to Toronto is maybe impossible and certainly optimistic.
For social media, they beat the rest (51.1k Facebook likes, 36.1k Twitter followers, 43.4k Instagram followers).
For community footprint, there's clearly work to do, they rank lower for this, although there's obvious potential opportunity. Whether the organisation would ever do enough to realise that is something we will likely never learn.
I think they had some sales challenges in Toronto itself, I've heard availability of merch was slim outside of the times they played in the city. But, so many people have Toronto merch of some sort, they clearly got some sales reach in the sport. Still, I'd put them 1st over the others in category a.
Whilst it's tough for me to score category b, we know that the Wolf Grooming bid didn't convince Super League clubs, so I can't see them outdoing every other club here. Lets say they're no better than the rest, generally.
Category c. is tough to score for Toronto. League positions, great. Head coach, top drawer. Squad, non-existent. But even if you look at the 2020 squad, it wasn't good enough, it lacked significantly for depth, and we saw how they started the season. Any Wolfpack fan who thinks they would have been any better than a bottom three finishers after a full 2020 is misguided. I can't rank them above 4th because of this.
Category d. is a weakness. Lamport isn't a top facility. Wolfpack fans know that. Take it in isolation rather than comparing it with other grounds. You can't use it for parts of the season, it has no covered seats, it has poor media facilities. I would have to rank it down just above London. To be clear, I went to Trailfinders and enjoyed my day, but I'm realistic about the facility. I'm sure I'd love a gameday at Lamport, if it's nice weather, but I'm being realistic too.
As for Category e, they have debts, they haven't paid player wages, they don't have an owner or prospective owner willing to fund the club outside of Super League (and remember, this is a only 1 year spot, no guarantees beyond that). Argyle put them in a deep hole for this category. In all good conscience, 6th is as high as I can put them.
Then Category f. Well, I can't tell you what the club's ownership structure is, or what it was going to be if they were allowed in. Was LiVolsi going to be the owner (of a club he misspelt the name of), or was a recently launched Canadian grooming brand with just three products going to be the owner? Add to that, the current/previous owner David Argyle was handed a £7,500 fine in June 2019 for breaching RFL Operational Rules around improper conduct and unacceptable language. I'd be ranking them just above Leigh, around Featherstone.
Overall then, they would score poorly on the assessment criteria. I'm not saying some existing Super League clubs wouldn't score poorly too. But the difference obviously is that the others didn't pull out of the season at the 11th hour, so they aren't up for the same kind of judgement.
I don't disagree that some self-interest will have plagued the Super League club's decision making. Although, weren't Toronto looking at self-interest when they insisted on taking a 2 point deduction for things that clubs would normally face up to 12 point deductions for.
It certainly isn't right that clubs voting on Toronto's future had deals on the table for players that otherwise had Wolfpack deals. Although, those players weren't getting paid by Toronto, which most certainly isn't right either.
I don't disagree that there were huge flaws in the 'Independent' report into the game's viability in Canada. Not speaking to experts over there means it wasn't thorough. Not considering the part of the sports market the Wolfpack were aiming at, and somewhat penetrating, is poor judgement. However, there must be flaws too on the Wolfpack submission, which we've seen less of than the independent report.
LiVolsi's cover letter spelt the team's name wrong. He delivered the presentation from his car. They reportedly didn't add significantly to the first submission, which by their own admission was not up to srandard. He didn't find some way to demonstrate proof of funding, without making it read like a petulant ultimatum.
He says he expected his bid to be rejected - so why hadn't he done more to make the bid better. He knew what Super League commissioned a report to look at. Why didn't he make sure experts were presented to the report, rather than hoping the report he thought was against him would seek them out. Pull out all the stops, make the bid impossible to reasonably reject. If he cared as much as some of the Wolfpack's great fans do, this bid shouldn't have failed.
Beyond LiVolsi, the Wolfpack had four years to build a footprint and file that could support the strength of their proposition. It's hugely frustrating that they were left relying on three months of limited work to secure their future. I find that just as frustrating as a limited month long desk based report being so influential in the final outcome too. There is blame everywhere here.
I really hope this hasn't upset too many people, I've tried to show my reasoning. I also hope you've been able to get to the end of this lengthy ramble.
Thanks for reading and make sure to listen to our shows for more Rugby League fan chat.