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The 2009–11 Super League licences were announced in May 2005 by the Rugby Football League (RFL) as the new determinant of the Super League competition's participants from 2009 in place of promotion and relegation. The licences were awarded after consideration of more factors than just the on-the-field performance of a club in the previous season. After 2007 automatic promotion and relegation was suspended for Super League with new teams admitted on a licence basis with the term of the licence to start in 2009.

The RFL stated that clubs applying to compete in Super League XIV in 2009 would be assessed by criteria in four areas (stadium facilities, finance and business performance, commercial and marketing and playing strength, including junior production and development) with the final evaluations and decisions being taken by the RFL's board of directors. These final deliberations were informed by the findings of a range of experts at the RFL and from external advisors such as KPMG.

Successful applicants would be licensed for three years of Super League competition. Three-yearly reviews of Super League membership will take place to ensure ambitious clubs lower down the leagues can still be successful.

Motivation

The RFL's in-house lawyer, Rod Findlay, explained, "The basis for the licensing process was established in May 2005 when the RFL, in full consultation with member clubs, drew up a strategy document for Super League which basically said 'This is what we want the league to look like and this is what we want the clubs to look like,'". Findlay continued, "The document concluded that the competition should be expanded to 14 clubs and said it was not felt the heartland would be able to sustain that number of Super League clubs. We do not have 14 clubs who satisfy all the Super League strategy aims. The board needs to decide whether those clubs that are not currently satisfying the aims can satisfy them in the future."

Commenting on the implementation of three year licence cycles, the RFL's Chief Executive Nigel Wood stated, "We hope to capture all of the advantages of a closed competition like the NRL without the disadvantages of having perennial under-performers that sometimes you get in a closed competition."

Club development

It is thought that the removal of the annual threat of relegation will prompt clubs to invest in developing their infrastructure, such as junior development and facilities, rather than spending on short-term fixes to avoid the drop. "The aim is that clubs direct some of their resources into medium-term development rather than the short-term panic of trying to hire a player, invariably from overseas, who will make the difference against relegation but leave without any long-term legacy," said the RFL's Wood.

The RFL have stated their belief that the benefits of licensing would grow the collective business strength of Super League (Europe) Limited. Alex Byars, senior manager in the Sports Business Group at Deloitte believed that licensing system had the potential to bring more money into the sport: "The greater stability could lead to more investment from outside of the sport as the removal of dramatic revenue changes due to relegation could also increase investor confidence."

International competition

Richard Lewis said he expected that "licensing will galvanise the sport, stimulating clubs into addressing the issues of facility improvements, spectator comfort and the production of more players".

The changes brought forth by licensing are intended to strengthen the competition and British rugby league. The strengthened competition, it is hoped, will lead to the development of more players able to compete successfully at international level. "The thinking is that if we have a more intense competition we will produce battle-hardened footballers," said Wood.

Application eligibility

Current Super League clubs were required to submit applications justifying their continued membership of the competition.

Non-Super League clubs based in the United Kingdommarker had to be participants in The Co-operative National League One during the 2008 season to apply.

Clubs based outside the UK and not competing in either Super League or National League One were able to apply, with applications to be judged by "the independent RFL board under the same process as UK based applications".

The deadline for the completed licence applications of clubs was the end of March 2008.

Decision process

The licence application process was designed to have the confidence of clubs being assessed as to the rigour of analysis of the business plans produced. The RFL and the clubs did not want the process to be a "leap of faith".

The process had three stages:
  • 1. Each applicant clubs was assessed to ensure they met minimum standards for Super League already in force.
  • 2. Using a simple points system, the clubs were divided into one of three categories, A, B or C.
  • 3. A detailed analysis of each club was undertaken examining their structure and business plan. The results of each analysis were detailed in separate reports and submitted to the RFL board for their consideration.


Licence criteria

Stage two of the licence decision process saw the clubs allocated the points used to decide licence grades according to their strength in several areas.

Facilities

Teams will get one point for having a stadium with a capacity of 12,000 or more. Another point will be awarded if the ground meets the standards of a premier competition in the 21st century.

Attendances

A point will be awarded to clubs with an average attendance of around 10,000 spectators. Another point will be awarded if stadiums are operating at 40 per cent capacity.

Finances

Teams will receive a point if they are solvent. Another point will be awarded if their turnover is more than £4 million.

Player strength

Teams earn one point if they are considered to have made a contribution to the competition - that means averaging a place in the top eight over each of the last three seasons. Another point is available to clubs who make a contribution to home-grown player development. That means at least eight members of a first-team squad of 25 should be discovered, trained and developed in the team's home country (United Kingdom or France).

Salary cap

One point is on offer to teams who have not committed a major breach of the salary cap in the last three seasons.

Geographical expansion

The final point goes to clubs who do not have another rugby league club within a 20-mile radius.

Total score

The scores attained by each club (out of ten) are translated into a Licence grading.
  • 8 or more points - A licence
  • 5-7 points - B licence
  • 4 points or less - C licence


Sky Sports report that it is believed teams who achieve an A or B Licence will be awarded a place in Super League, while those who achieve a C Licence will undergo further scrutiny before the RFL decide who makes the final cut.

Expulsion from Super League

Clubs that are awarded a Super League Licence are not protected for the three years of the contract from removal from Super League due to the absence of relegation. The RFL Board will have powers enabling them to revoke a club's membership if necessary at any time, with the failed club being replaced by another from outside. The reasons, yet to be finalised and published, are "likely to include insolvency, contractual breach, persistent under performance and possibly persistent rule breaking".

Applicants

Nineteen applications for Super League licences were received. Each of the 2008 season Super League clubs applied as well as several National League One sides and Toulouse Olympique of the French Elite One Championship.

In recent seasons and leading up to the submission deadline, several clubs submitted 'dummy' applications to the RFL - on which they received advice and feedback - in preparation for their official one. This 'dummy' application facility run by the RFL has been praised by clubs including Castleford and its Chief Executive, Richard Wright.

The applicants were: Bradford Bulls, Castleford Tigers, Catalans Dragons, Celtic Crusaders, Featherstone Rovers, Halifax RLFC, Harlequins, Hull FC, Hull KR, Huddersfield Giants, Leeds Rhinos, Leigh Centurions, Salford City Reds, St Helens, Toulouse, Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, Warrington Wolves, Widnes Vikings and Wigan Warriors.

Expansion to 14 clubs

The RFL have said that there is no upper limit on the number of clubs that may be accepted into the competition if more than fourteen strong applications are received as long as any additional entrants are "not detrimental to the overall quality of the competition and depth of playing talent".

In June 2008, the RFL confirmed that Super League would be expanded from 12 teams to 14 in 2009. Richard Lewis, the RFL's Executive Chairman, said it was "as good a time as any for the sport to go to a 14-team Super League competition" with "television income, sponsorship income and crowd figures - so much going well" and the international game growing. Expansion to 14 teams had been an aim of the RFL and its member clubs since the licencing was agreed upon in a 2005 strategy document.

Speculation

Sky Sports

Boots 'N' All, the magazine programme broadcast on Sky Sports, the primary Super League broadcaster, sent a reporter to each of the nineteen applicants to evaluate them.

A licence B licence C licence
Hull FC
Leeds Rhinos
St Helens
Warrington Wolves
Bradford Bulls
Catalans Dragons
Harlequins
Huddersfield Giants
Leigh Centurions
Salford City Reds
Toulouse
Widnes Vikings
Wigan Warriors
Castleford Tigers
Celtic Crusaders
Featherstone Rovers
Halifax
Hull KR
Wakefield Trinity Wildcats


Code 13

Monthly British rugby league magazine Code 13 also evaluated all the licences, apart from Toulouse, in their April 2008 issue.

A licence B licence C licence
Leeds Rhinos - 9
Warrington Wolves - 9
Bradford Bulls - 8
Catalans Dragons - 8
Hull FC - 8
Wigan Warriors - 8
Harlequins - 7
Huddersfield Giants - 6
St Helens - 6
Widnes Vikings - 5
Castleford Tigers - 4
Halifax - 4
Salford City Reds - 4
Celtic Crusaders - 3
Hull KR - 3
Leigh Centurions - 3
Wakefield Trinity Wildcats - 3
Featherstone Rovers - 2


Rugby Football League Announcement

The 19 applicant clubs met with the RFL's board of directors at 0945 BST Tuesday 22 July 2008 to be told the outcome of their bids for licences.

The Executive Chairman of the RFL, Richard Lewis publicly announced the 14 clubs to be licenced at 1000 BST. The press conference had been described by some as British rugby league's most significant since the switch to a summer Super League was first mooted in 1995. An announcement of this kind was a first for British sport.

The 14 successful clubs included all 12 existing Super League clubs, despite concern that some did not meet the relevant criteria. A day later, on 23 July 2008, the RFL announced the gradings they had given to each of the 14 successful applications.

A licence B licence C licence
Hull FC - Existing Super League team
Leeds Rhinos - Existing Super League team
Warrington Wolves - Existing Super League team
Bradford Bulls - Existing Super League team
St Helens - Existing Super League team
Wigan Warriors - Existing Super League team
Castleford Tigers - Existing Super League team
Catalans Dragons - Existing Super League team
Celtic Crusaders - Elevated to Super League
Harlequins - Existing Super League team
Hull KR - Existing Super League team
Huddersfield Giants - Existing Super League team
Salford City Reds - Elevated to Super League
Wakefield Trinity Wildcats - Existing Super League team


In the lead up to the announcement, Rod Findlay, the RFL's in-house lawyer, stated that he believed the process of preparing the applications would benefit each of the 19 applicants due to the level of scrutiny required for so much of their operation.

Response to announcement

Club representatives

Castleford Tigers - Richard Wright, Chief Executive - "This is fabulous news for the club and the fans and just what we have been waiting to hear."

Celtic Crusaders - Jonathan Davis, Club President - "This gives the Welsh public the opportunity to see top-class rugby league in Wales on a week-by-week basis. We missed the boat in both 1995 and 1998...but this decision more than makes up for it. Now, more of an infrastructure is in place with teams at all levels in Wales from schoolboys upwards, which wasn’t the case 10 years ago.I’d like to thank the RFL for giving us the opportunity and roll on 2009."

- David Thompson, Chief Executive - "We are absolutely delighted. What we have achieved over two-and-a-half years is incredible, but we know all we have done is get to the starting line. We have got a lot of work to do over the next three years to make sure we continue to grow and become stronger."

Leigh Centurions - Allan Rowley, Chief Executive - "May we take this opportunity to wish Salford and Celtic all the best but we also have to say we are thoroughly disgusted with the Celtic decision. We now have a team that fielded 10 overseas players against us because they are classed as a development team and are now in our elite competition, which is a complete contradiction of terms and we feel this decision is purely a geographical one...the decision makers should hang their heads in shame."

Salford City Reds - David Tarry, Chief Executive - "We are the regional club for Manchester. The future is bright and exciting and we are now in a position to really be a flagship for rugby league and to rival the success enjoyed by Sale Sharks."

- Paul Snape, finance director - "For the first time ever we can plan properly without the threat of relegation. We can invest our revenues and our sponsorship. We are in the big league. The club has traditionally been loss making but when we get to the new stadium it will be profitable."

Warrington Wolves - Dave Hutchinson, commercial director - Believes clubs further work is needed to attract even bigger sponsors: "A lot of sponsors do not realise how popular it is. They see it as having a cloth cap image. That is not the reality. For example 40 per cent who watch it are ABC1s. Super League has attracted some big sponsors and we need to up the ante."

Widnes Vikings - Steve O'Connor, Chairman - "We must build on the solid foundations we have laid down over the past eight months and plan for the future. I feel it is vital for the game as a whole that the Super League flourishes under this new licence system and I'm still convinced that Widnes Vikings have all the credentials to become a powerful force in Super League."

Wider game and media response

Ray French - Former player, broadcaster - “Widnes, unlike Leigh, reacted with dignity and integrity and a determination to make it in 2011. They were arguably the biggest losers in all this, but the way they reacted was the right thing to do, as was awarding a franchise to the Crusaders. The game can no longer just exist in the north of England, it has to go national and international.It is growing in France and it is also growing in Scotland and Ireland, both places where I wouldn’t be surprised to see Super League bids come from next time around."

Brian Moore - Rugby union broadcaster and journalist - "The criteria upon which it is said the awards were made were multifarious, allowing, depending on your point of view, detailed scrutiny of every aspect of each applicant's case; or to allow the Rugby Football League to justify any award it wanted to make." "The decision to grant a licence to the Celtic Crusaders of Wales in front of Widnes and Halifax has caused justifiable ill-feeling...this was an expansion decision, pure and simple; pretending otherwise is insulting to those who missed out and wasted time and money chasing a franchise they were never going to get."

Monitoring

During the three year licence period clubs will be monitored by the RFL to ensure that they are "progressing with plans they put in their original Super League licence applications,” said the RFL's director of development, Gary Tasker.

In July 2009 the RFL wrote to five Super League clubs to remind them of the commitments they made regarding improvement of their stadium facilities under the licensing agreement. Castleford, Celtic Crusaders, Wakefield, St Helens and Salford were warned that their continued presence in Super League after the next round of licensing is in jeopardy. An RFL statement said, "[They] have been informed that if plans to build new stadiums or significantly improve their home venues are not sufficiently advanced by 2011, they may not satisfy the full criteria for the next period of licensing”. Gary Tasker warned of "the potential implications any failure to do so may have on their next application. Clubs need to be aware that we are raising the bar for the next licence period." "Showcasing Super League in high quality stadium facilities remains a key objective," he said.

The future: 2012–14 licences

Unsuccessful applicant clubs and others will be able to apply for the next set of licences for the three year period 2012-2014 in 2011. To be eligible they must qualify for the Grand Final of the division below Super League, the Co-operative Championship, in 2009 or 2010 or win the National League Cup.

RFL Chief Executive Nigel Wood sought to allay fears that Super League could become a 'closed shop' in the absence of relegation. Despite the length of the licences being three years, that does not mean that clubs with a licence are assured of remaining in Super League for the full three years of their agreement. "This is not a closed shop", "there must always be a way of getting in and a way of removing under-performing clubs" said Wood.

Mr Wood also said that following the three years, there could be further changes. "The best performing [Championship] club will be guaranteed admission to Super League, either at the expense of the worst performing club or by expanding the competition," he said.

No upper limit on the number of Super League licences awarded has been set by the RFL, the option remains open to expand again in the future. Increasing the number of teams in the competition without changing the competition's format would be at odds with recent RFL and Super League decisions and reports. The RFL's plan for international success, which was the result of an inquiry into England's poor performance at the 2008 World Cup, states an intention to work with clubs to limit the number of games top players can take part in. The Magic Weekend event has allowed for a reduction in the number of games each club plays to 27, from 28; although a reason for the desire to reduce games in this case was to reduce the number of times Super League sides played each other more than twice in the regular season.

References

  1. Code 13 - Up For Licence?, Issue 3, April 2008, Page 10. Retrieved on 2008-08-27.


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