27 April 2014

An Obvious Solution - scheduling our showcase events

There has been plenty of conjecture about a return to a May final for the Challenge Cup, although when we put it out as a discussion point there was a mixed response. There has also been plenty of discussion on the relevance and fairness of Magic Weekend, most commonly staged in May, in the new promotion and relegation era.

Mark has been considering both of these matters and thinks there is an obvious solution that no one has yet landed on: swap them round (sort of).

As things stand what we know to be the greatest game has three major showcase events each year that can help convince others of this - Magic Weekend (usually in May), the Challenge Cup Final (formerly in April/May, now August Bank Holiday) and the Super League Grand Final in October.

Magic draws plenty of criticism for a whole range of reasons. As does the Cup Final being in August and even the Grand Final for being bigger than topping the league table. You could draw the conclusion that league fans just like to moan about stuff! But I know better, it's more that we care so much about our sport that we think about and talk about these things so much the negative is likely to be involved in the mix. The questioning voices are often, sadly, heard louder than the many complementary voices these days. If these events weren't there you would hear plenty questioning that too!

I think it's fair to say all three events bring a lot of entertainment, revenue and attention to our sport. They are integral to the present and future of the sport in my eyes. They are the key opportunities to show off the product to wide and hopefully some new audiences each and every year. In my opinion you can't lose any of them, or even mess with any of them too much, but with the restructure for 2015 there is some opportunity to tweak them now to set the foundations for a future that we can consolidate and build on.

Grand Final
The Grand Final is for me without question, and though the new structure changes the playoffs significantly with a round robin then shorter knock out section, it reinforces the role of the Grand Final as deciding that year's champion team. That stays as the major club season ending event in October. Simple.

The RFL could maybe do more with fan events media events between the man of steel dinner and the big game to market and expand the event a little bit more but by and large it's an event we should be happy with and proud of.

Challenge Cup
One great thing about October's Grand Final is that it's pretty much the premier sporting event of the Autumn in the UK. It can be given big billing. My personal feeling is we have to do the same with the Cup final. 

August doesn't work badly in this respect, the football season starting is the main conflict faced, maybe a cricket test match or the odd summer Olympics or Commonwealth games. May is terrible in this respect though. The Premier League and football league climax, FA Cup final, Champions League final, RU European Cup final all now are dominant events in May for sports fans.

This for me is the biggest reason to not bring the Cup final back to spring. We want it to stand out separately to these other events. 

However, the most important reason for move to an earlier final is to have a more sensibly constructed Cup competition. I'm writing this in the midst of Round 5 games from this year's Cup, in April. There will now be three rounds in four months with the final at the end of August. That loses momentum and, to a degree, interest in the competition.

I think the final does have to move. But when to?

For me, the first Saturday in June every year. Looking at the sporting calendar there is no major event filling that slot regularly. It comes before Wimbledon, the Open Championship, main test match series and any international football tournaments, but after that clogged up May period.

You can have a competition with some momentum and a date in the sporting calendar that it can make it's own. It's earlier in the year for those that miss that, but far enough into the season that teams have gelled. It will excite us all again.

Magic Weekend
In an earlier episode of the show we talked a lot about the Magic Weekend. Not many people wanted rid of this event in the calendar but many weren't convinced it should stay as it is. We spoke of making it a 9s event, a representative weekend or a round of the Cup, but I'm now of the mind that we keep it as it is...sort of.

Of course the main problem with how it currently exists is it won't be fair in this higher stakes era of promotion and relegation that unbalanced fixtures will result. The truth is it was no fairer in licencing either really, playoff places and prize money still being at stake.

Additionally, with the Cup final now earlier in my calendar it would fall very close to Magic Weekend as it currently sits.

All that can be solved by moving Magic Weekend to the current weekend in the calendar the Challenge Cup final sits on.

Not only does it space out these major events again, but it would also place the weekend in the three 8s section of the new structure. That will even out the home and away balance of that part of the year and mean no one gets a bonus 'easier' or unfair 'tougher' extra game. You just play the fixture with your closest rival (in terms of league standing after two 12s stage) at Magic.

You can even expand it to include all 24 clubs over that bank holiday weekend - play the middle tier's four fixtures on the Saturday as a curtain raiser, the top tier four fixtures on the Sunday and the bottom four on the Monday.

If there are worries about the Saturday and Monday (in particular) games attracting too small a crowd for a big stadium like the Etihad then you can use more suitably sized nearby stadiums - Bolton on the Saturday or Salford on the Monday for example. Concerns like that can be ironed out, we have plenty of sporting stadiums in and around our major cities.

Oh yeah, and this will also be another sensible step in controlling the amount of games played as it takes one from the schedule the RFL has currently indicated for next year.

What you should get is 12 close and meaningful games (all games mean more next year we're told) and a show piece event that should bring out the best in our sport.

The Solution
There you have it. Move the Cup final back, but to June rather than the already busy May, and swap Magic into the bank holiday opening left in August.

This also means that the UK's top summer team sport will now have two of its three flagship events in summer months, rather than the one that currently sits in that summer. Simple!

That's what Mark thinks, let us know what you think. Leave a comment, connect with us on Facebook or interact on Twitter. 

Any good ones will get discussed on a future episode of Super League Pod. All the useful links are on the sidebar so you know how to reach us and don't miss an episode.

16 April 2014

Easter Fixtures - The Annual Debate

Criticism over the Easter scheduling has already started this year before any team had even been decimated on the Friday and destroyed on the Monday. Last year our Mark wrote a piece on the Easter weekend games and the success or not of these. Here is a repost of the bulk of that piece:

This debate seems to get trotted out every year now. An overseas coach will come out in the media and criticise the Easter schedule, and a home grown representative of the game will come out and defend the Easter double header.

The main argument against the fixtures is player welfare and whether its right to put these athletes out there for back to back matches in the physically intense sport of modern rugby league. Other concerns are also raised about how good an advert for the game the second fixture is - the feeling is they will lack the intensity of the Friday games and the other weekly rounds, you might see a drop off in performances and end up with very one sided fixtures, which isn't good for the sport.

The supporters of the double-header often hark back to the tradition of the Easter weekend in the sports calendar. Its seen as being positive for the games to be on bank holidays during school holidays as it should have a positive impact on crowds. The best defence of the fixtures I've seen came as 'tackle two' of Guardian journalist Andy Wilson's most recent (at that time) 'Set of Six' blog - that these games give youth their head as senior players don't have the time to recover and the matches are a bridge between academy competition and the usual intensity of other Super League rounds.

However, I'm not going to go over what other people have said, I'm going to look at the numbers - two numbers in particular: (1) attendances and (2) points difference in the games. I've looked at the last 10 seasons and compared Good Friday (GF) fixtures, including ones played Thursday nights, with Easter Monday (EM) fixtures, including the odd Tuesday night games, and also included the season averages (for 2013, averages are for first 10 rounds). The numbers are summarised in this table:

The boxed figures indicate best of all figures. Bold indicates the better of the two that year. Red indicates the figure is worse that the average for that season. Obviously, the higher the attendance the better, the lower the points difference the better.

The crowds have always been better on Good Friday, apart from the highest figure being 2007's Easter Monday. The best explanatory factor is that the first proper Hull derby for years was staged at the KC on that Easter Monday. Wigan also travelled the Leeds, so the best two supported clubs met on that Monday, and four of the five worst attended clubs that season hosted Good Friday games, which weren't all derbies in this year.

Since 2008, four or five genuine derby matches have taken place in each set of Good Friday fixtures, whereas 2005 and 2007 were the only years where Easter Monday saw a derby take place. The influence of derby games in the crowds being high is clear - teams tend to get their highest crowds against their closest rivals, particularly in the big derbies Wigan-Saints, Leeds-Bradford and the Hull derby, that make up the bulk of the aggregate attendance at Easter and see similarly strong crowds in reverse fixtures.

A noteworthy observation is six of ten Easter Monday rounds have seen lower average attendances than the season average, including all of the last five years - two years are significantly lower, 2010 and 2012. This goes against one of the common defences of the Easter fixtures, as Easter Monday games are no more popular in general than average weekly rounds - although its worth noting the weekly round figures benefit from the inflationary Magic Weekend, but even taking this into account 2010 and 2012 were below average and 2004 had no Magic Weekend.

Looking beyond average attendances for the whole round and focusing on the crowds at the individual games gives some more perspective. Not including 2013 as the season isn't over yet, on the Good Fridays I looked at there were 58 games. In 41 of them, the crowd was bigger than the home team's average for that whole season. 9 of those games weren't derby matches, and the 8 that were below the home team's season average all were not derby matches. On the Easter Mondays, 26 of the 58 games (including 1 derby) saw higher crowds than the home team's season average, 32 games (including 1 derby) saw lower crowds than the home team's season average - more than half.

Maybe that second game on Easter Monday isn't as big a deal with the fans as the game's administrators think.

Points difference
The general trend is Good Friday games are closer than Easter Monday games. Seven of the ten years saw a closer average points difference in Good Friday games over Easter Monday games. Also, six of the ten years sees a higher average gap between winning and losing teams than the season as a whole saw for Easter Monday, some a number of points wider, when that is only seen in two of ten Good Fridays. The overall average for Easter Monday also suggests less competitive matches in general than all regular season matches during the entire period.

One notable exception is 2008, where Easter Monday saw the closest games of any Easter round in the period. Actually, that season, both rounds saw mostly close games - 8 of 12 ended within two scores - but the difference was two one-sided results were seen on Good Friday and only one, with a smaller points gap too, on Easter Monday that year.

I've broken it down a bit further to see how close individual games were, beyond the averages (as these can be skewed by massively one-sided games like Warrington at Salford in 2010 and Wigan at Hull KR this year). Categorising a close game as one that finishes with a two score (12 point) difference or less and a blow-out as 30 point or more difference between the teams, gives these results:

2004 to 2008 had six games in each round, 2009 onwards had seven games each round. 

Good Friday sees more close games and fewer blow-outs than Easter Monday, supporting the averages. More than half the Good Friday games are close, and I'd note 12 of these close games weren't derbies. Of the 11 Good Friday blow-outs, 6 were derbies. Nearly half of the Easter Monday games were close. Only two traditional derbies were played on Mondays during the 10 years - one was a close game, one was a blow-out. These figures suggest that a game being a derby doesn't have a great deal of influence over how close a match might end up being.

All of this suggests games aren't as close on Easter Monday, which is less exciting for the fans and it's not a great advert for the sport that over a quarter of the games are one sided blow-outs over the years. The average points difference, number of close games and number of blow-outs all support the commonly held notion that Easter Monday games lack the intensity and competitiveness of Good Friday games, or of the average weekly round.

A lot of observers also point out that it isn't just the second game in three days that causes players and competitiveness to suffer, but it's also that third game in little over a week that suffers too. In seven of the nine years 2004-2012 (inclusive), the weekend after Easter has seen an average points difference for the round of 19 points or more, so the average game is decided by more than three converted tries. This shows that round suffers for competitiveness too - again, not a great advert for the league.

Overall, I think it's reasonable to conclude that if we were to lose the Easter Monday fixture it wouldn't be the worst thing for the sport. The crowds aren't brilliant, the games can quite often be a bad advert for the league, and it extends that effect to the week after too.

I'm not saying it should be taken from the calendar, but I do think the RFL should have a proper think about whether this scheduling is worth keeping. I feel the drawbacks out weigh the positives. A re-think could be to get Sky buy-in to have a extended televised schedule of games but only play one round over the weekend - say, Leeds-Bradford on the Thursday night every year, Wigan-Saints on the Friday afternoon, Castleford-Wakefield on Friday night, London-Catalans Saturday, Huddersfield-Salford Sunday, Hull derby Monday lunch time and Warrington-Widnes Monday evening - still televise four games like they do at the moment, or all of them would be nice.

Let us know what you think? And has the scheduling of the Challenge Cup 5th round on the weekend after Easter further devalued that competition in what has become a tough week for Super League teams to raise their game a third time in a short period?

Comment, tweet us, find us on Facebook or send us an email with your thoughts!

And don't forget to listen to this week's show where we give our predictions to both Easter rounds.

12 April 2014

Championship Week - Whitehaven: Looking To Avoid The Drop

Following on from the piece on Sheffield Eagles, we're continuing our look at the Championships with the assessment of Whitehaven fan Lee Carson on his team's fortunes.

The target has to be to avoid the drop this season and so far it has been a mixed bag of results.

A defeat at Keighley without bonus point followed by postponement of Crusaders game didn't help. An excellent win at Dewsbury and a poor second half against Halifax again with no bonus point.

A shocking cup defeat at York after being in control seemed to indicate a struggle this year but a good win against Barrow has helped improve matters.

The signing of Brett Seymour, visa permitting, is excellent news and a big boost. We need to win all home games against the lower teams and start to pick up some bonus points along the way and if we perform consistently then we have a chance of avoiding the drop.

Dual Registration for all clubs will have a big say in the bottom half of the table as it will be that tight based on the games so far.

Thanks for reading
Lee Carson @jameater5

Thanks to Lee for giving us his thoughts. If you're a Whitehaven fan, do you agree or have anything to add? Get in touch!

If you're a fan of another club in the Championships and wasn't to contribute a piece on your club then get in touch on Twitter, Facebook or by email to superleaguepod@gmail.com

And don't forget to listen to the show!

9 April 2014

Championship Week - Sheffield Eagles: A Season That Might Not Have Been

This week at Super League Pod we're having a look at the Championship based around our trip to see in form Halifax host top of the table Leigh. As we aren't fans at Championship clubs (not yet anyway for Tom) we're looking for all the input we can get from you guys.

Here's the first offering we've received from Sheffield Eagles fan and friend of the show Scott Quibell:

Here we are five league games into the season, a slow start for the Eagles (nothing new) but the Challenge cup third round win over amateurs East Leeds seems to have kicked started our season. A 46-10 demolition of Dewsbury was followed up by a 42-24 win away at Keighley and then another points fest 70-28 against London Skolars in the challenge cup 4th round. 

We certainly seem to be finding our feet at Owlerton stadium now. It's a very small pitch so it was always going to take a bit of time to adjust, but it could have been a very different story and possibly dare I say it a new season without the Eagles at all.

Rewind to Friday 6 September 2013 and the first round of the Championship playoffs versus Halifax at Don Valley. The Eagles were well beaten that night 21 points to 6 by a very good Halifax side that kept our attacking flair very quiet, something not many sides managed to do last season. As I arrived home disappointed by the result news started filtering through that the plan for the club's new home for next season - a university sports complex on Bawtry Road just off the M1 - had fallen through and the club now had nowhere to go having exhausted all options within the city. Mark Aston went on radio Sheffield to address the fans of the now dire situation, which can be listened to here.

All in all it was an awful night that I'll never forget for all the wrong reasons. Where could the club go? The football clubs didn't want to know. Woodburn Road (Don Valley's replacement) was ruled out, the pitch at Sheffield FC's home at Dronfield was too small for Rugby League.

Then Owlerton Stadium, an option which had been ruled out due to lack of facilities, stuck their hands up and the ball was rolling. A lot of work was needed, the changing rooms needed sorting and the pitch was in a state, but if these things were sorted the RFL would give it the green light. Thankfully it all came off.

And after that disastrous night against Halifax, when all looked lost, we went on all the way to Grand Final glory which was real test of character for the lads with all the uncertainty. As they say the rest is history! Strangely the Grand final was the same day Don Valley closed it's doors forever. It wasn't ideal for Rugby League but it had been our home for 23 years it still feels a bit strange knowing I'll never be going back there. 

On we move and I went into this season full of relief, the club has had a major upheaval and I can't thank the guys down at Owlerton enough for what they have done for us. And as for this season? I couldn't care less if we finished first or much further down the table as I for one am simply glad to still have a club to support for many years to come.

Thanks for reading
Scott Quibell @ScottQuibell85

We hope you've enjoyed Scott's insight on his Eagles. If you want to share your Championship or Championship 1 early season stories then contact us on Twitter, Facebook or send it over by email to superleaguepod@gmail.com