25th September 2017, 14:32 | catalans
The question has to be asked: is promotion and relegation compatible with international expansion?
The reason it has to be asked, of course, is because Catalans play Leigh in the Million Pound Game this Saturday. Few people seem completely convinced Catalans will field a team in the Championship next year if relegated, although there seems no hard evidence that they won’t.
In Rugby League’s two main professional competitions, we have an uneasy mix of American and British systems. This issue is where the friction between the two philosophies is hottest.
The purest American sports system encourages ‘franchises’ that are transferable from one city to the next, drafts and salary caps equalising the competition and little or no encouragement for local players. The competing clubs form a "closed shop".
The purest British system involves none of these artificial mechanisms; spend as much as you like and the tiniest village can hope to compete with the biggest city.
The NRL is British in that there are suburbs like Parramatta and Manly competing with cities like Melbourne, regions like North Queensland and countries like New Zealand. The NRL has a salary cap but not a draft.
Understandably, Super League is even ‘more British’ with the inclusion of promotion and relegation. Theoretically any team can work its way up to Super League and lift the trophy at Old Trafford on grand final day.
Super League has, however, an American-style salary cap and in the past it has licenced franchises based on a number of criteria intended to measure a prospective top-level team’s value to the competition and the sport.
18-10 down and two minutes from relegation, then this happens... pic.twitter.com/4nWc5zhMec— Betfred Super League (@SuperLeague) October 2, 2016
Catalans came in under this philosophy; they did not have to work their way up through the divisions like Toronto Wolfpack currently are.
In the debate between an organic ‘survival of the fittest’ regime such as premier league versus a stage-managed eco system like the NFL, we very rarely take into account geography.
But it could be the most important factor.
In a country where every team can be reached by road or rail, it makes sense that promotion and relegation would survive longer than in places where air travel is necessary. If you have to go to Bournemouth next year instead of Exeter, it doesn’t really impact on the costs and structure of your league.
If the number of teams in each division stay the same, then your sport looks pretty much the same from year to year. One rich guy might come along and boost one club while another will loose patience and go back to playing golf.
But in places where air travel is necessary and where new teams are intended to open up television and supporter markets for the sport, the stakes are much higher.
Much work is done to assemble consortia to bid for licences – be it in Perpignan, Las Vegas or Perth. They are not just teams but outposts – embassies if you like – of the franchise's sport.
When there’s no NFL team in Los Angeles, there is no NFL in Los Angeles. The country’s biggest sporting competition is absent from one of its two biggest markets.
In the case of Catalans, it could be said rugby league will be relegating itself.
For instance, if a chain store opens branches in Wigan, Manchester and Brighouse and after six months the Brighouse store is struggling, that branch might close. But if the same store gets to the point it can open in London, its likely it will have more patience than it doe for the Brighouse store because if its overall value to the brand.
Perhaps the biggest problem herein is that Catalans didn’t have to work their way up through the divisions and so would not be anywhere as well prepared as the Wolfpack for being relegated.
But surely the two philosophies are in opposition to one another.
Promotion and relegation pre-supposes that what clubs do is their own business and administrators will simply provide a structure for them to play each other all season in a manner that rewards on-field success to the exclusion of everything else.
International expansion, meanwhile, puts administrators firmly in the sport’s driver’s seat. It is based on more than on-field success. We want to maximise our number of viewers and participants and we are therefore putting/admitting a team in a specific area as part of a wider philosophy that helps us compete with other sports.
So you are making a decision based on economic and demographic factors one minute and then straight away you are discounting the very factors that led to your original decision. You may as well have not made the decision at all.
One approach is passive, the other aggressive - and passive aggressive people can be very frustrating.