Last month, MP Andy Burnham launched a petition which, to date, has 668 signatures. The petition called for a return to promotion and relegation as opposed to the licensing system that’s been in place for the last five years.
The licensing system requires - amongst many other things - a commercial income of at least £1m, high average-attendances for home crowds and at least 5,000 season ticket holders.
The idea is designed to ensure that there is enough money and support within clubs to justify entrance to the Super League.
One of Andy Burnham’s reasons for advocating the return to a promotion/relegation system was that 5,000 fans had turned out to see the Challenge Cup quarterfinal clash between Leeds and Leigh Centurions. That’s all well and good when it’s a one-off for a Championship team but I wonder how many people would stick around when Leigh are getting hammered at the bottom of the table every week? That’s a low number to start with and in my experience most people like their team to have at least a chance of winning.
I might be wrong. They might have such a faithful following that they could hold their numbers but the introduction of a Championship team like Leigh – to use them as an example – would do nothing to displace the ‘big four’.
Then, on the other side of the coin, you have a side like Bradford in absolute crisis and having to ask fans and past players alike to club together to save them from administration. It’s a spectacular show of solidarity but it completely goes against the idea of a licensing system in the first place.
The difference is that even in times of hardship, Bradford’s home crowd has seldom dropped below ten thousand. That’s an awful lot of unwaivering loyalty.
There has been a ‘big four’ in Super League for a long time. I, like most other league fans, can look down a list of fixtures and when the bottom half of the table plays the top half, especially at that point in the season, and tell you who the nailed on favourites are. I’m not saying there aren’t surprises – there are – and that’s the beauty of the game that I love but those surprises often come when there’s an injury crisis, or backed up players, or a side’s on the back of an embarrassing defeat. At this point in the season, even the surprises are pretty predictable.
What the introduction of relegation and promotion would do is merely create competition at the bottom of the table in the form of a relegation race as well as amongst the top four. If the winning Championship team simply does not have the funding required to compete in Super League they’ll end up straight back down.
Andy Burnham used Wigan Athletic as an example of a team that had shown, against the odds, that they are capable of top-flight football. Unfortunately, teams like Leigh and Featherstone and Halifax are not so fortunate as to have huge sums of money pumped into them by benefactors, or secure the sorts of sponsorship that top-flight football offers.
What the licensing system does is offers teams a chance to build up slowly. Sure, Widnes might finish at the bottom this season but they have three years to develop and grow and I believe that they can eventually become threatening, especially with the addition of Huddersfield captain Kevin Brown from next season. Allowing Catalans immunity from relegation also allowed for the development time required to compete in Super League and that development time is crucial to sides and must remain part of Super League.