11 August 2016

System Overload - Should we rethink the Super8s?

As a straightforward question, for me it has a simple answer: No, we should not rethink the Super8s at this point.

It is a little bit more complicated than that of course, but as this is an opinion piece I thought I'd make mine clear from the start.

If you asked me if the Super8s was my preferred league structure I'd have to say no as well, but there is no perfect structure for British Rugby League - us, the fans, won't let one exist.

Let's go through the options we've seen in my lifetime:
  • 16 teams, play each team twice (home & away), first past the post wins, 3 relegated
  • 14 teams, play each team twice (home & away), first past the post wins, 3 relegated
  • 16 teams, play each team twice (home & away), first past the post wins, 2 relegated
  • 11 teams, play each team twice (home & away), first past the post wins, none relegated
  • 12 teams, play each team twice (home & away), first past the post wins, 1 relegated
  • 12 teams, play each team twice (home & away) plus one neutral round, winner comes from 5 team play-offs, 1 potentially relegated
  • 14 teams, uneven schedule (15 home & away games each), winner comes from 5 team play-offs, 1 potentially relegated
  • 12 teams, uneven schedule (14 home & away games each), winner comes from 5 team play-offs, 1 potentially relegated
  • 12 teams, uneven schedule (14 home & away games each), winner comes from 6 team play-offs, 1 relegated
  • 12 teams, uneven schedule (13 home & away games each) plus one neutral round, winner comes from 6 team play-offs, 1 relegated
  • 14 teams, play each team twice (home & away) plus one neutral round, winner comes from 8 team play-offs, no relegation (3 year license review)
  • 12 teams, play each team twice (home & away) plus one neutral round, top 8 play each other once, winner comes from 4 team play-offs, bottom four play top of second tier for place in next year's top tier, 4 potentially relegated
A couple of those were contrived for bigger changes to happen or because teams dropped out of the league for whatever reason, but I'm 31. That's a new league system for every 2.5 years I've been alive.

Broken down though, there's four main types of system, or roughly one for each decade I've lived in. 
  • First past the post league with promotion & relegation
  • Play-off format with promotion & relegation
  • Licensing
  • Super8s
None have been universally popular. All have their supporters and their detractors, because all have their strengths and their weaknesses.

Before then play-offs it was argued that too many seasons were done too long before the business end, and the eventual winner was becoming too predictable. That started to become the case with a 5 team play-offs too. Plus, the new teams that came up invariably struggled to compete.

The play-offs can be called contrived or artificial. In their 6 and 8 team versions there was criticism that average teams could win the competition and you didn't have to perform all year to be winners. 

Now, in the Super8s, the system is again being slated for too many dead rubbers, with a couple of teams in each of the 8s not having much left to play for with a number of games left. Unsurprisingly the leading calls for change come from clubs in those positions.

I'm not saying I love the 8s or that they're perfect. There are too many games played by our top players for a start. And I'm no real fan of promotion and relegation as a way to strengthen the top level of sport. But they do smooth out some of the problems seen by other systems. They combine being where you end up on merit with drama and excitement of one of occasions. They provide a rounded test for teams and offer an opportunity for staged progression up the leagues. They're not perfect for anyone, but they're not absolutely bad for anyone either.

What people have to realise though is there is no magic formula. There is no perfect fix. We should allow the system we have to settle in, become the norm, find a pattern, before we make wholesale changes again as a sport to the way our competition is formatted.

To be honest, all this fiddling ignores the the fundamental problem in the sport. There isn't enough money and there aren't enough well-run, well supported clubs.

The challenge I feel is for those clubs with 'dead-rubbers' to come up with inventive ways of selling these games to their fans. The challenge for them then is to be better next year, take more points more consistently off the teams ahead of and around them, so that they don't leave their fans with games at the end of the season that have relatively little hanging on them.

We shouldn't even be thinking about competition structure again until we have at least 16 full-time clubs all reasonably capable of recording double figure wins in a 'Super League' season. What we should, as a sport, be worrying about is getting to that point.

Increasing the cap for full-time second tier clubs is a step in that direction. What would be a better step is open and widespread knowledge sharing between clubs. What works well for one club in increasing revenues should be discussed with other clubs. The clubs should all recognise that they are not competing with each other off-the-field, they need to work together in that area for the good of the league and the sport in this country.

We should also be looking for a way in increase revenue sharing and look at ways of spreading out young talent distribution around the full-time clubs - these might be harder to achieve as they would have more impact on the on-the-field competitiveness of sides. Owners would be more reluctant to share things out in this area. Maybe if they had a chat with some of the club owners in arguably the best run and best off sports league in the world, the NFL, they might get a more rounded picture.

So back to my opening question. No we should not be rethinking the way the Super8s work right now. There are more fundamental issues that we should address that would make the system work how the RFL are looking for it to, but in a fair way, taking into consideration merit as well as excitement and competition.

Thanks as always for reading. Please let us know what you make of it and make sure you listen to our show every week to keep up with the latest from SLP!


28 July 2016

RFL Disciplinary Process: Is it too lenient?

Here we are with the final instalment of my 'Disciplinary Trilogy'.

As you may have already read, I've compiled a comprehensive break down of every disciplinary panel charge made against a Super League player from the start of 2010 up to the weekend of Round 22 2016 - or at least every available charge*.  I started from 2010 as that is when the current version of the on field sentencing guidelines - or something very much like it - came in.

I'll be clear. This isn't a review of individual decisions or of individual offences. It's a review of whether the punishments handed out are generally a bit light.

One thing I've argued before is that the punishments handed out by the tribunal are too lenient. The data I'm about to present, I feel, backs up this opinion.

In more than 400 charges over six years of cases, only once has a case been given a higher grading by the tribunal than recommended by the Match Review Panel. This is compared to 13 cases where a charge has been downgraded.

Also only once has a case been given a ban higher than the recommended range for the grade charged. Compare this to 17 cases where the ban given has been below the recommended range for the grade charged.

Furthermore, almost four in five cases (79%) over the entire period see the ban imposed on an offender be at the bottom end of the recommended range or below. That compares to 3% of mid-range bans (only possible on Grade D and above charges, A is 0-1 games, B is 1-2, C is 2-3, D is 3-5, E is 4-8, F is 8+), and 17% at the top of the normal ban range or above.

This should all be viewed with the backdrop that 79% of charges come out at Grade A or B (once revised), so at the lower end of the available scale for a starter. That goes up to 94% for Grades A-C.

It's worth noting that EGP's came in from 2012 and account for almost half the charges since then (49%), but they could be argued as part of the problem that the system is too lenient. Adjusting for them 64.6% of cases that the Tribunal considered still came in at the bottom of the grade range or below. Only 29.5% were the top end or above in the EGP period, leaving 5.9% falling in the middle of a ban range.

When higher grades are given, on those rare occasions, there is a movement towards higher bans within the normal range. Although not at the top of the range, really serious offences do get serious punishments.

However, the system seems clearly skewed towards leniency. More charges at the bottom end of the scale suggests a light touch approach to discipline, but doesn't quite demonstrate leniency. The amount of bans at the bottom end of the grade scale or below, and the amount of downgrading compared to upgrading, do demonstrate leniency.

If there wasn't leniency bias in the system, you'd expect a similar amount of top of grade range bans as bottom of grade range bans. You'd expect the same amount of charges upgraded as downgraded. That we don't see this is clear demonstration of a skew towards a lenient handling of cases by the Tribunal. And that's without highlighting any individual cases.

Hopefully down the way we'll see it more than just once that aggravating factors mean higher bans than the normal range. Or we'll see a serial offender get pinned for being reckless, or maybe even intentional, rather than just careless, based on track record.

I hope you've found this read informative and make sure you check out my last two posts on the topic too. Let us know your thoughts and don't forget to listen to the show and tell your friends about SLP.


(*when I say every charge, I mean in Super League or Challenge Cup games, but unfortunately excluding the 2015 Super 8s as they don't show in the search filters on RFL website at time of writing, and missing any other errors or omissions from the records)

27 July 2016

RFL Disciplinary - Is there a 'Big' club bias?

I'm back and on that favourite of topics again - the RFL disciplinary.

Bias in the system was the first thing I ever looked at for one of my blogs. What kicked me off was actually Wigan fans suggesting that Wigan were on the rough end of systematic bias against them. Although I'm a very passionate Wigan fan, I felt the need to take an objective look and see if the feelings some fans had were merited.

Funny then that now, almost four years later, I'm looking into whether there's any bias from a starting point at the exact other end of things.

Listeners to SLP will know I'm fairly fed up with the notion popularised by many fans of an RFL bias towards the so called 'Big clubs' when it comes to matters of discipline. Largely in recent times that's focussed on Wigan - be it Sean O'Loughlin, Taulima Tautai or Josh Charnley, Wigan's recent trips to Red Hall of a weekday evening have been talked about plenty.

Again, I've tried to conduct an objective review, to see if these views of 'Big club bias' and 'Wigan running the RFL' are merited.

The table below shows a comprehensive break down of every charge made against a Super League player from the start of 2010 up to the weekend of Round 22 2016*. I'll go over some of the headline figures below, the table might not show up great on the blog so head over to our Facebook page for a larger version. I start in 2010 as that is when the current version of the on field sentencing guidelines - or something very much like it - came in.

(*when I say every charge, I mean in Super League or Challenge Cup games, but unfortunately excluding the 2015 Super 8s as they don't show in the search filters on RFL website at time of writing, and missing any other errors or omissions from the records)

So, is there a big club bias? Well first I need to understand who are the 'Big' clubs. 

Obviously people use this term to mean Wigan and Leeds. They are the best attended and the most successful clubs in the 2010-2016 time period I'm looking at. St Helens have been very successful throughout the Super League era and are pretty well attended too - although I don't see 'big club bias' attached to their name too much, lets assume they're a big club. Hull FC and Warrington are the only other current Super League sides to win major finals in the Super League era and to regularly draw five-figure gates, so lets say they're big clubs too.

Huddersfield have a fairly recent League Leaders Shield and been runners up in the Cup in recent memory, but then crowds aren't great and they're in the Qualifiers this year, so let's assume medium size for them. Catalan have had a Cup final appearance and get reasonable gates so we'll lump them in there as well. Castleford and Hull KR on similar criteria might just be medium sized too - although both have missed some of the Super League years, just like the other two in this group. Bradford can also fit in here - they can't beat part-timers now but they were massive once upon a time, not so long ago.

That leaves London, Salford, Wakefield and Widnes as the small clubs - because to have big clubs you must have small ones, otherwise they'd all be normal sized! But seriously, by most metrics they must be what people mean in the big/small club divide. Oh, and League 1 Crusaders, though with so few charges from their Super League run (something ain't right in the RFL website data there) they're barely relevant to this review, so I won't mention them again.

BIG - Hull FC, Leeds, St Helens, Warrington, Wigan
MEDIUM - Bradford, Castleford, Catalan, Huddersfield, Hull KR
SMALL - London, Salford, Wakefield, Widnes

The clubs with the most charges in the period are:
1. Catalan (Medium) - 52
2. Hull KR (Medium) - 40
3. Leeds (Big) - 38

The clubs with the fewest, that have played in all 7 seasons (i.e. not Bradford, Widnes or London), are:
1. St Helens (Big) - 22
2= Wakefield (Small) - 29
2= Huddersfield (Medium) - 29
The overall 'Guilty' verdict average across all 438 charges is 93%.
Clubs with above 93% of guilty charges:
Castleford (Medium) - 97%, Catalan (Medium) - 94%, Huddersfield (Medium) - 97%, Leeds (Big) - 95%, Salford (Small) - 95%, St Helens (Big) 95%, Widnes (Small) - 95%, Wigan (Big) - 94%

Clubs with below 93% of guilty charges:
Bradford (Medium) - 89%, Hull FC (Big) - 90%, Hull KR (Medium) - 90%, London (Small) - 86%, Wakefield (Small) - 91%

Warrington (Big) have 93%

Across all 409 guilty verdicts, 4% of bans are below the normal grade range, 75% are at the bottom of the normal range, 4% in the middle of the range somewhere and 17% are at the top of the normal grade range or above. (normal ban ranges are: Grade A is 0-1 games, B is 1-2, C is 2-3, D is 3-5, E is 4-8, F is 8+)
Warrington (Big) have seen the most bans below the normal range - 11% (Wigan are actually the only 'Big' club with less than 4% - meaning they're less likely than average to get a cushy lower ban handed to them).
Castleford (Medium), London (Small) and Widnes (Small) have had no bans below the normal range (Another 'small' club Wakefield do have 6% bans below the normal range - the only 'small' club to be above 4%, so more cushy lower bans than average).

Wigan (Big) and Catalan (Medium) both have 65% of bans at the bottom end of the normal range, the joint lowest figure - meaning they get fewer lenient bans than are given out to any of the small clubs. 
Hull FC (Big), St Helens (Big) and Widnes (Small) all get the lowest normal ban most - 86% of the time.

Castleford (Medium) get the maximum normal ban most - 28% of the time - followed by Wigan (Big) 26% and Catalan (Medium) 24%.
Widnes (Small) get the maximum ban the least - 5% of the time - followed by Huddersfield (Medium) and Hull FC (Big) on 7%.

It does appear that on average the five 'Big' clubs get more charges downgraded, although it's 'Small' Salford who've had the most charges downgraded by the Tribunal. It does also appears that the 'Big' clubs get more punishments below the normal ban range, although this is skewed somewhat by 'Big' Warrington having three of 17 such cases. With such cases, though, we're talking small volumes.
With the larger volume 'bottom of normal range or below' and 'top of normal range or above' categories, the 'Big' clubs are just about more likely on average to get more of the softer punishments, but they're also quite a bit more likely to get more of the tougher punishments than 'Small' clubs too. Trust me, this does make sense when you notice Wigan are the only one of the 'Big' clubs to have had a mid-range ban handed to them, when smaller clubs like Widnes and London had a few of those.

What of appeals? Well there haven't been loads, so there's no firm conclusions to take away, but as a group the 'Big' clubs are more likely to make an appeal and more likely then to see success. I probably put this down more to making sure they have a better handle on the process rather than the process being biased towards them.
I would explain that success doesn't mean a guilty decision was overturned - in all but one case the success was only partial, in that there was a reduced ban but not a complete overturning of the decision. For the sake of colour, I'll also add that three of Wigan's six appeals have been made this season, and both partial successes were this year too - Flower and Tautai had bans reduced on appeal. I can't say there's a 'big club bias' from appeals though. The numbers are fairly low and the teams with the best success rates (Bradford, Hull FC, London and Warrington) come from all across the club size scale. 

In conclusion, I'm not convinced from looking into charges over this lengthy period that there is any evidence of a 'Big' club bias. The spread of guilty charges, lenient punishments, lengthy bans and successful appeals cuts across all clubs. 

'Small' clubs are slightly less likely to get a guilty charge than larger sized clubs. 'Big' clubs are slightly more likely to get a lenient punishment at the tribunal, although it's 'Medium' clubs that fare worse than 'Small' clubs in this regard. 'Medium' clubs will also get more top-end bans, with 'Big' clubs also more likely to see lengthy bans than the 'Small' ones. 'Big' clubs do have more success when appealing decisions. 

There is one firm conclusion I can make from the data though - the disciplinary process errs on the side of low grades and lenient punishments. That will be the subject of my next blog post.

As always, thanks for reading and I hope this has been informative. And don't forget to listen to the show every week and tell your friends about SLP.


16 July 2016

Rip It Up And Start Again: The RFL Disciplinary Process

I've researched and written about this loads in my time as a blogger and podcaster. Each time I think I've gained more understanding of how things work.

I've got some things wrong in the past, or had my views change and evolve. One thing I'm certain of though is the system isn't fit for purpose. It hasn't moved with the times and its also held back by other aspects of the way our game is run not moving on either.

It might be a good idea to start the whole thing from stage one. Forget the past. Write off what has been in place for as long as I've known it. Put something new in place that better reflects the modern views on player welfare and what is or isn't a serious offence.

Let me make this clear, this isn't about the Sean O'Loughlin tackle (I'm a Wigan fan so at least 11/12ths of you will disregard my opinion anyway), but that whole issue has encouraged me to write about the disciplinary again.

So, as I've said, I'd scrap the old system altogether and bring in a new one. I would change the types of offences, the scale of grading, the level of punishments. I would, as much as is fair, limit the amount of incidents reviewed where no action is taken at all. Here goes...

Type of offence
This is the categorisation I would use in my new world order (n.b. list may be incomplete, and there would be room to add other specific offences that I've missed or start to occur).

Type A - Dangerous Contact

  • (Aa) High Tackle
  • (Ab) Shoulder Charge
  • (Ac) Eye Gouge
  • (Ad) Chicken Wing / Ankle Twist
  • (Ae) Cannonball / Attacking Knees
  • (Af) Crusher / Undue Pressure On Neck
  • (Ag) Lift / Throw
  • (Ah) Late hit
  • (Az) Other Dangerous Contact

Type B - Fighting/Striking

  • (Ba) Fighting / Punching
  • (Bb) Use Of Forearm / Elbow
  • (Bc) Raising Knees
  • (Bd) Tripping
  • (Be) Kick / Stamp
  • (Bf) Headbutt
  • (Bz) Other Fighting/Striking

Type C - Other non-contact offences

  • (Ca) Dissent
  • (Cb) Foul / Abusive Language
  • (Cc) Contact With An Official
The specific offences should be outlined in the laws of the game as being illegal and have examples of these offences for players, coaches and fans to reference. It should be made clear that this isn't a limit to the offences and anything previously unspecified can come under the (z) options.

Grading scale
I would get rid of the ABC etc. grading system and introduce a simplified three level structure. I would be keen for it to include cautions in this scale and would also be keen to see more cautions handed out. Too many cases where on another day an injury could have resulted in the disciplinary archives have no charge, saying something like: 
  • "Tackle is high. Player is reaching. Worthy of on field penalty."
  • "Level of force used is not overly excessive."
  • "Player is lifted beyond the horizontal but lands safely."
If the sport wants to get serious on player welfare and cut out dangerous tackles with potential for serious injury, the disciplinary process needs to show more effort to punish poor technique that increases the risks that already exist in our physical collision sport.

My scale would be:

Level 1 - Caution for an offence made that did not warrant a ban/fine
Level 2 - Offence that warrants low level ban/fine
Level 3 - Offence that warrants high level ban/fine

I would also want to impose a 'quality check', so that week's tribunal will assess a random selection of cases that the match review panel (MRP) have seen as 'no charge' cases. If they would have imposed a ban for the action considered, the MRP will fail quality. The MRP would then be required to reconsider every case considered from the game with the 'fail', with any new charges to be heard at the following week's tribunal.

Level of punishments
I'm in favour of a system that punishes physical offences with potential for serious injury with a higher ban, and other types of offences with a higher fine. I'm not saying the other offences are less serious, quite the contrary really - I'm saying they ones with potential to injure are more serious.

Level 1 grading:
These would only warrant cautions, but if a player had three cautions for the same type of offence in any rolling 6 month period they should be given an automatic 1 match ban. This would apply to each of the three types of offence.

Level 2 grading:
For Type A offences these would have a ban range of 1 to 5 games and a fine of £300. All cases would start at a 3 game ban, with the final ban imposed by the tribunal being decided by aggregating the mitigating and aggravating factors that apply. I'm happy with the factors currently given in the rules, but just would like them to go both ways and increase as well as decrease bans.
For Type B offences I would change the ban range to 0-4 games, starting at 2 games as default before factors are considered. £300 fine. I would qualify that I expect this type of offence to be more readily picked up and punished in-game, so that's why I'm starting from a lower ban range on review.
For Type C offences the ban range would fall again to 0-3 games but still start at 2. Fine would be £500.

Level 3 grading:
For Type A ban range of 4 games up to a time period ban. Default starting point would be 7 games, with factors then considered for final ban - here's where 'other aggravating factors' might have a big role to play. £500 fine.
For Type B, the range would be 3 games upwards, starting at 5 games before factors are aggregated. £500 fine.
For Type C it would also be minimum 3 games upwards, and start at 5 too before considering other factors. The fine would be a minimum £750, but could also be increased based on any aggravating factors.

An obstacle to my idea
If I was in any position to have the powers that be consider my ideas, I'm sure there would be friction from the clubs and players at the idea of more games being missed through suspensions.

One solution would be a bigger salary cap that would allow a bigger squad to be bought - I'm not an advocate of removing the cap, but I would be looking to increase it. This isn't about the cap, just a note on how the current cap level would be an obstacle to my ideas as if more games are missed through bans, you need a bigger squad to cover that. For what it's worth though, a salary cap of £2.75m (that also actually increases by some sort of measure, be that average RPI/CPI or average wage inflation), with a marquee player allowance taking the full wage of the highest paid player off that cap total, is what I would go for.

That's where my mind is at on the disciplinary at the moment anyway. I'm sure it'll change in the future, but right now I'm convinced that the system has to take a harder line on cases where the possibility of injury is increased by poor technique and execution. I don't want to hang any players or clubs out to dry, but we need to prioritise the welfare of the current and future stars of our game.


1 May 2016

Super League Thursdays

I've wanted to write something about Thursday TV games for a while, but not known what to say. Or, more precisely, how to say what I want to say.

Thursday TV games are great. I love them. If my team are playing it means I get to go see them and then have the full weekend to spend with the wife, keeping her happy. It gives me some quality sport entertainment to watch during the week too - I'm not one for darts and I find it harder and harder to enjoy a football match, so having mid-week Rugby League for me is brilliant. It's something to look forward to watching.

That's the easy bit to say.

The harder bit to say is all you out there that don't like them, that moan about them, just like to use the Thursday thing as an excuse to stay at home and watch the game on the TV and not be there to support your team. There I said it. It feels good to get that off my chest.

I'm not saying there aren't genuine reasons for some people not going to games on Thursdays, just as people have genuine reasons that they can't attend games on any day of the week. Awkward work shifts, trouble getting babysitters, need to attend other functions and events, going on holidays, sickness, affordability. There are loads of acceptable reasons.

Apparently though, only Thursdays are bad. Ruining the game, No good for supporters. No good for families. I can't agree, and I don't really believe most of you lot out there really think that way too.

Fridays tend to have more 'headline' fixtures in the TV spot, but the available Thursday TV viewing figures from 2015 stack up pretty well against them. An overall average of a touch over 110,000 for the regular season Thursday fixtures and a best of 156,000 according to Rugby League on TV data. That best figure being the 5th best overall regular season viewing number. We also know from our experience that plenty of you guys tune in to the Thursday games, based on the massive amount of your reviews we get on these each week.

It also can't be financial, because ticket prices are no higher for Thursday games. We now have free away travel for all season ticket holders too, although that is a fairly new initiative. Basically, there's no reason a Thursday game is less affordable than a Friday, Saturday or Sunday game.

So, it must be getting to the games that's the problem. Well, all the Thursday TV games are scheduled for the whole regular season from the off, so that gives plenty of time to plan for them. They kick off at the same time as Friday games, so in theory people have the same amount of time to finish work and get to games - most people that work a Monday-Friday 9-5 work week will have the same working hours on a Friday as a Thursday I assure you. I can't imagine traffic is much easier on a Thursday than a Friday either - although I have no empirical support for that statement.

I know one thing for sure, it's not because of the travel distance. Using an unwieldy but not entirely unreasonable assumption (that all fans travel from the home stadium to the away one!), the average away travel distance for UK fans in Super League is 55.8 miles, with an average journey time of 68 minutes - or about half an SLP episode! The average away travel distances on Thursday games since they became a firm feature for 2014 is 42.3 miles and less than an hour travel time - it falls to 36.7 miles if you take out the two 2014 fixtures that included London Broncos. I also looked at the correlation between travel distance and change in crowd size from the same fixture the previous year - there is none. Well, there's a weak negative relationship between the two with an indication that the two variables - distance between teams and change in crowd - have almost no link or causality (a correlation coefficient of -0.110 and an r-squared value of 1% if you're interested).

I think the travel distances and times also shut down some of the criticism that it's no good for fans who work during the week. Yeah, it's no good for people who work Thursday nights! But there will be shift workers who'll miss games whenever they are scheduled for - that's the nature of shift work, and not all Rugby League fans can get to all games if they work shifts. Simple. (although I've already pointed out the whole Thursday schedule is laid out before the season, but I digress.) Many fans that stay in and watch the games on TV will enjoy the coverage until it's 10:30 end to catch Jon Wells at the touch screen with one of the stars on show. The game ends at say 9:50. Give it 10 minutes to get to the car and get going. Then your average 50 minute travel time for an away fan. Most fans will still be home by 11:00 - and with a big majority of any crowd being home fans, you'd argue they're mostly back much earlier than that, probably the same time the TV viewers are heading off to bed.

Yes, there are some people who legitimately travel long distances to see their team play, making a weekday game very difficult for them to travel to and from on a regular basis. They are the minority though. Probably not even 1%.

I think that really just leaves the 'it's no good for families' argument then. Ok. Soon I'll give you some numbers and graphs - although as always with statistics, they can be used to support different arguments and picked apart as widely as you want to. Before that though, what do we mean by families? I'd wager we mean parents with children aged between 5 and 12. Younger than that and you probably won't take them to loads of games anyway, and if even if you did, there's probably not much to stop them sleeping through the following day. Older than that and the odd later week night isn't going to do them any harm, they're probably up in their bedrooms snap chatting until late in any case.

Thursdays get the second best average crowds of any day in the history of Super League, dating back to 1996. Only Fridays have a better average all-time crowd number.
These figures are open to percentage skew because of the relative small number of Thursday games until 2013, before which they tended to just be big Easter derbies. (Also, I'm aware Fridays tend to be the normal home game of the best attended sides - Leeds, Wigan, Hull FC, St Helens - and Sundays are the traditional home day of lesser attended sides.)

You'll see from the changes through time that as Thursday games became more commonplace, their absolute and relative position in the averages has fallen. Despite overall average crowds trending upwards and being in a healthy relative position up to Round 11 2016, Thursday crowds are not doing the same. Mondays enjoy a relative bump though thanks to Thursdays no longer being an Easter preserve.

Still, they're commonly better attended than other days. You know, those days when you can get 'families' to and from the game between bedtimes, with no worry of school the next day - those days we call Saturdays. And, for that matter, in many cases Sundays too, where there may still be tomorrow's school to worry about, but not bedtimes.
Obviously, the 'family' factor is one that deserves more investigation - numbers of young fans that each club has for example - but I'm just not seeing it as the problem that it gets referred to as. The same goes for Thursdays as a whole. Like I said, I think people like the excuse - and to have something to moan about. We need to get used to it though - Thursdays aren't going away. We need to realise that the money is in the TV audience rather than on the terraces, even though we'd love them both to be bigger.

I've found that, on average, a Thursday fixture attracts a crowd 888 people less than that same fixture the year before - although these are imperfect comparisons as weather, significance of the match and also some of them being on Thursdays the year before aren't factors accounted for. 15 games saw an increase and 42 had a drop in crowds since the start of the 2014 season compared to the same fixture in the previous regular season.
We can play some very simplistic and crude number games from this. Lets assume a per ticket price of £20, which is generous given lots of children will get in free and many other attendees would be concessions of some sort. I'm also not considering if an extra 800+ on a crowd means more costs to the home side. You get an average loss on ticketing of £17,760. Based on what Leigh owner Derek Beaumont said during the 2015 Super 8s, Super League clubs can get £20,000 per TV game they host. That's outside of the per-team yearly riches that are handed out from the long-term TV deal the league is locked in to.

However you dress it up, Sky like Thursdays and the club owners and money men must like them too. Lots of fans aren't put off by them - far more than are, they're just less vocal about it. We have to get used to them. We should embrace them, they aren't going away any time soon. I say lets make Thursday nights great for the game. Plan ahead, make as many games as you can and watch all the rest. Treat the couple of home games you might get as a bonus, freeing up the rest of your weekend. Do the maths on the away games to figure out if you can make them, when you do you'll probably realise they aren't the inconvenience you've decided they are. If I can do it as a Wigan fan, who already lives almost the average Thursday travel distance from our home ground, then I'm sure most of you can too. (note: Wigan have had more Thursday games than any other side in the whole Super League era and the recent Thursday TV era.)

Before I leave this, a couple more points on the crowd by day numbers. Why aren't Castleford, Huddersfield, Hull KR, Salford, Wakefield, Warrington and Widnes trying more Friday night games? Why aren't Saints trying a few more Sunday games? And why oh why is anyone other than Catalan playing on a Saturday? I write this on the same weekend Salford set a new low figure for 2016 on Saturday 30 April of 3,048.

Anyway, rant over. I feel cleansed. Hopefully getting this off my chest will improve my focus on my Dream Team and SuperBru performance.


30 April 2016

Brian's BackChat #2

On last week's show (get it HERE if still available) we talked about the addition of the Toronto side to League 1 in 2017, ahead of the Wolfpack's official unveiling on Wednesday 27 April.

We gave both sides of the coin on this move, with Tom showing excitement and Mark adding the hesitance on whether this will be a success or not. That got Wakey fan Brian thinking again, and he put down his views on expansion both in the UK and beyond to us, which we've shared in full below. We'll cover some of this off in Episode 98 of SLP so look out for that at the end of the bank holiday.

Expansion is a difficult subject for rugby league. Because each club is a private entity and the RFL does not have financial reserves that run to many, many millions of pounds, the RFL are damned no matter what they do.

Any support for a particular cub is seen as unfair. Treating all clubs equal is seen as a lack of vision and leadership. 

It is clearly more expensive for London to put a competitive team together than it is for say Leigh or Bradford, due to things like the cost of living and ease of attracting fringe players not wanted by SL clubs. The RFL lack both the support from other clubs and the financial clout to financially support London, so they are left to sink or swim, and what could have been built in 10 years, could take 50.

League people say they want a competitive sport where you rise and fall due to your own performance, yet when a new club joins on the bottom rung, it's wrong, either because they will be too competitive for the bottom tier, or because they might succeed and become better than one of the teams currently at the top. If they are put in the top flight and protected from relegation, then that is seen as unfair as they replace the worst historic club at that level, that has probably failed constantly for the past 50 years.

The world has changed since 1895 and many of the economic centres in the north at that time and through to the 1960s no longer have the financial clout they once did. A top SL club needs to be a multi million pound business. There simply isn't the wealth around Wakefield, Castleford, Featherstone, Dewsbury and Batley to support five top notch pro rugby league clubs. There may not be enough money to support even one.

Clubs in places like Toronto, Toulouse, Perpignan and London, give the game access to money and playing markets that the historic clubs have constantly failed to reach. There are several players playing for northern clubs who started playing league in France or the south. That shows how much untapped playing talent there is out there, if only it is given the chance.

A friend of mine who plays in League 1 can't wait for next season, especially if Toulouse don't get promoted. 

Arguments that we should prioritise the historic clubs over Toronto, or focus expansion closer to home are nonsense. The money to set up this new team is only coming in to the game because the guy wants to have a team in Toronto. He doesn't want to live in chuffin' Wakey or Fev. If it goes tits up, so what? He's lost a load of money, a few people have had some fun whilst it lasted and we move on. It's not money that would have otherwise been available to the game, so it's difficult to see how the game can lose out of this.


Brian's BackChat #1

Each week on SLP we make calls or go on rants that show us to be the ill-informed or hot-headed prats that we are. Every now and then, we get pulled up for it, and often this is done by one of our most interesting and learned listeners, Brian 'full-Bri' Davies.

A couple of week's ago, Mark had a bit of a blast at former RFL Chairman Richard Lewis, remembering the back end of his tenure particularly, feeling it seemed more about positioning himself for life after rugby league and not taking an active role for the betterment of the sport at that time.

Brian hit back in Lewis' defence, highlighting the achievements of his stewardship as a whole, rather than Mark's more narrow assessment. 

If you want to listen to that show (and if it's still available) get it HERE. But this is more about Brian's input, reproduced in full below:

Couldn't let Mark's comment that Richard Lewis had "his own interests in mind" during his tenure of the RFL go without response. Lewis was chairman from 2002 to 2012.

When he took charge, the RFL had debts of £1.9m, the international game was on its knees. The previous autumn's Kangaroo tour almost got cancelled, after the Aussies used 9/11 as an excuse to get out of a tour they couldn't be arsed to make. The 2001 Grand Final between the Bulls & Wigan was watched by only 60,174.

The whole of the pro game below Super League in 2002 was in one division, the Northern Ford Premiership.

Lewis brought in the new league structure in 2003, which brought teams from outside the North into the new National Leagues. He brought all parts of the game, SL, championship clubs, BARLA together, he created the RLEF, he made playing for England the pinnacle of the sport, rather than a chore. He introduced the Magic weekend.

Lewis was a quiet administrator, who led the RFL superbly. He recognised that the only way for the game to grow was through a strong international game. He was continually hampered in his efforts by the parochial attitude of most pro clubs, many of their supporters, and the insular mentality of many media pundits (the Jack Deardon and Garry Schofield types).

A true mark of his excellent leadership,of the game, is that he has been gone for four years and people mostly take for granted the things that he helped implement.

The player pathways for kids through to super league, the fact that most people in the UK have a rugby league club somewhere close to them, the fact that the RFL has made a profit every year since 2004, the fact that we know there will be an international programme every autumn for lots of countries. The fact that probably the best coach in rugby league history wants to coach our national side for the next two years and our best players talk about wanting to make the squad.

Those of us who remember the shambles the game was in when Chris Caisley (Bulls), Maurice Lindsay (Wigan) & Gary Hetherington (Leeds) bitched amongst themselves and ran the game for their own benefit shudder at the memory. I remember Wakey being fined £10k by the Lindsay influenced SL for making an illegal approach to Jason Robinson when he said he was leaving for Union. The then Wakey chief exec John Pearman (who later fled the country) told Robinson's agent that if Robinson wasn't going to stay at Wigan, Wakey would be interested. Basically a headline grabbing stunt!

The state of the game is far, far from perfect, but it's probably never been in a better state to survive and grow in the face of the challenges that the modern world brings. Lewis was an excellent choice as chairman of the RFL for that period. He has helped the game move on, so we need a different type of leader at Super League than Richard Lewis now, but let's not slag the bloke who rebuilt the foundations the current game is build on.


6 February 2016

The C Word. And, as it happens, the L Word.

Super League recruitment this year has seen an influx of antipodean players that I would argue represents an uptick in terms of the talent we have seen coming over in recent years. The arrivals of Frank Pritchard, Glenn Stewart, Sika Manu, Ryan Hinchcliffe, Kurt Gidley, and yes, even Big Dave Taylor should all prove to be positive additions to their respective teams, and serve to augment the experience of the viewing public as the year goes by.

By the same token there are certainly players who, in the kindest terms might be described as journeymen or, in more disparaging circles, past it.

Sometimes of course, these “global professionals” go on to wow us, become cult heroes to their respective fans, and live on in the lore of Super League long after their brief flashes of brilliance have faded.

Over the years some fine talents have graced our stadia. It would be fair to say that in some cases, the circumstances which have brought certain players to our sport have been less than glamourous. Todd Carney and Joel Monaghan lost their place in the NRL as the result of various indiscretions. It is flatly because of their immature and frankly stupid actions that they are now plying their trades in the Northern Hemisphere - but it would be unfair to both Carney and Monaghan not to mention that they are doing so with some aplomb.

In both Carney and Monaghan’s cases their behaviour and subsequent decampment to Super League was met generally with the rolling of our collective eyes. Much mickey-taking followed but there was far from the groundswell of outrage that some portions of the world outside rugby might have expected, or even hoped for.

Having said that one of this season’s new arrivals has, certainly at SLP Headquarters, sparked some degree of deeper upset.

Robert Lui arrived at Salford during the off season amid relatively little fanfare. For a halfback with some real skill this may seem surprising, but Lui comes with some pretty serious baggage. Baggage which goes way beyond the drunken exploits of a young man in the public eye. This is perhaps why he was not lauded as he might otherwise have been upon arriving on English soil.

For the benefit of those who may not be fully informed, Lui has been convicted of occasioning actual bodily harm on his partner. It does not require me to editorialise, or try to influence a reader’s reaction in any fashion to illicit an emotional reaction to this. Or at least it shouldn’t.

I will state here and now that I do not consider the indiscretions of misters Carney, Carney, Monaghan, Ferres and Hardaker to be even in the same stratosphere as a crime such as this. And I will further state that I do believe that since Lui has been punished for his crimes, in the eyes of the law at least, he should now be allowed to seek employment in the same fashion that others in the same position do, provided he is subject to the same checks and balances that exist for such people.

My personal opinion is that he should not be allowed to play rugby professionally again. Fortunately I don’t make the rules. If I did the world would be run quite differently and I’m not sure I’m up to the task.

And so to the crux of the matter. On a personal level both Mark and I feel a strong sense of indignation towards Robert Lui. His actions were repugnant and represent some of the most cowardly acts a man can perform. His continued presence in our sport, to my mind, demonstrates a willingness on the part of our governing bodies to tacitly approve of those actions, although I understand their hands are tied to some degree.

Our hands however, are not tied. We can chose to do what we like with Robert Lui. We can call him all the derogatory words we wish whenever his name comes up, or we can choose to deny his existence all together. Initially our plan was to simply ignore him. I recall saying that even were Lui to win Man of Steel this year I would choose not to mention it and deny him the oxygen of publicity our show offers (albeit in minuscule amounts!).

So the decision was made simply to not give Lui the time of day in our little corner of Rugby League Media. Then something happened.

A Salford fan whose opinion we hold in high esteem, pointed out to us that Lui had played well in pre-season and that we had neglected to mention this during our season preview show. This presented me with a bit of a problem.  Whilst we do not claim to be the loudest voice in Rugby League, we do claim to be all encompassing and to cover every aspect of the sport. I found myself wondering aloud if I had been over-reacting by deciding not to talk about Robert Lui’s on field performances because of the disdain with which I view his previous behaviour.

I don’t like having my guns unstuck, so this was a strange feeling for me.

There is a petulant child who lives in my brain. He tells me to do things from time to time that I know I shouldn’t do. He also gives me the worse possible advice when it comes to my behaviour. Occasionally I listen to him with disastrous consequences. Whilst I was thinking about Robert Lui this kid spoke up. “Talk about him, but call him a c*nt every time you do”.

See? Terrible advice.

It goes without saying that I can’t use the turn of phrase “the woman-beating-c*nt-Robert-Lui” every time I refer to the man. Firstly, whilst I like a good swear and have no problem with the word on a personal level, I know that others will find this in poor taste. Poorer taste than beating your other half? Probably not, but there is no reason to let the actions of one man cause me to lower myself too far.

I decided I needed to be better informed on the subject. So I Googled it. Ten minutes later I knew how I wanted to proceed with the whole Robert-Lui-Woman-Beater thing. It has taken me a couple of weeks to get my thoughts in order, but I think I’ve landed on a healthy solution. In fact, I think I can shoehorn Robert Lui’s abhorrent actions into something positive….

Each year around 2.1m people suffer some form of domestic abuse -  1.4 million women (8.5% of the population) and 700,000 men (4.5% of the population).

In 2013-14 the police recorded 887,000 domestic abuse incidents in England and Wales.

Seven women a month are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales.

85% of victims sought help five times on average from professionals in the year before they got effective help to stop the abuse.

These statistics are readily available by going HERE. You can go there right now and see this first hand, as I did. Doing so opened my eyes.

Of course I knew that domestic violence occurs, but not in these numbers. I’m now angry at myself for being naïve to this issue. Particularly I was astonished how hard people suffering from domestic violence have to work before receiving adequate support.

I have decided not to be naïve to this issue anymore.

Let me put things in simple terms. If there are 100 women at the next match you attend nine of them are suffering some form of domestic violence. I’m not trying to marginalise the men who suffer in this fashion, but as the parent of a little girl this is where my passion lies.

This is an awful thought and reducing this type of crime can only happen if we talk about it. So I’m going to talk about it. Every time Robert Lui comes up organically on the show, I will refer to him as “convicted domestic abuser Robert Lui”. Does this solve the problem? No. Can I solve this problem alone? No. Can I do more than slag off one criminal to raise awareness of this issue? Your damn right I can.

So here is what I propose.

I am committing here, now and in writing to raise money and awareness for victims of domestic violence. Over the next twelve months I will be undertaking different physical challenges in the name of the charity Refuge, which helps countless women to escape from abusive relationships every year. I will be running both 10k’s in Blackpool and Preston (July 7th and September 25th respectively) and on the eve of the Grand Final I will be cycling 200km. In doing so I will be canvassing for sponsorship, I will also be talking about this as the weeks pass on the show. You’ve been warned. And of course I invite you all to do the same.

What I’ve realised by thinking about this issue is that hiding it doesn’t help diminish it. Ignoring Robert Lui as a protest against domestic violence is pointless. Talking about the subject in broader terms will. Raising money for the charities which work so hard to reduce this will. If you feel compelled to sponsor me (and believe me, over the coming months you’re going to want to donate just to shut me up) please head to www.justgiving.com/superleaguepodstandsup

The plan is to raise £2000 for this worthwhile cause. If everyone who follow us on twitter gave just £1 we would smash that target.

My aim is now to turn something terrible into a positive, rather than let it fester within me. I would urge everyone who reads this and everyone who listens to the show to do the same.