A question often posed in rugby league circles is what would have happened to the sport if Sky and the Superleague had not happened? It is difficult to know what the answer is but what can be said is that the phenomenon that was the Bradford Bulls would not have happened. Wigan's dominance of the eighties and nineties was extinguished by the rise of this West Yorkshire club that had its traditional heart based on years of history as Bradford Northern but embraced the Americanisms of the new age. From the nickname, to the mascot, the music and the cheerleaders, no club embraced Superleague like them. Much has been written about the demise of the club but one element that has been missed so far is that Bradford tried harder than anyone to get families to rugby league. Whether it was just perception or not but the average age of a Bulls fan seemed younger and this is not something rugby league can afford to use.
There will be many who speculate as to the demise of the club and the recriminations will no doubt run and run but this blog does not seek to point the finger of blame. There are some brutal truths that rugby league needs to face as Bradford Bulls are not the only club in financial difficulties and, sadly, they may not be the last to go into liquidation. It is about how we stop this.
Rugby league is not the only sport whose clubs face financial difficulties. The rise of Premier League football in the North of England I am of the view has affected rugby league more than has been appreciated. Various football league clubs, Durham County Cricket Club and London Welsh RFC are testament to a difficult balance between sport and finance. However, rugby league does not tend to attract overseas billionaires to bankroll the clubs and nor does it have a strong international presence. Marwan Koukash at Salford is a rare exception of someone from outside who has bought into the sport and I think he would admit to struggling. Paradoxically, its regionality and lack of overseas investment may yet prove to be rugby league's trump card as people may yet turn away from the multi-millionaires back to more traditional sport but rugby league must live in the real world. With virtually no overseas investment, a limited international presence and a small heartlands, the sport might wish to hop over the Irish Sea to look at Gaelic Football.
There are many greater experts on Gaelic Football than me, it should be acknowledged. The game is, I am sure also not without its problems either but it is noticeable to me that for a game not dissimilar to rugby league in its mindset that the average attendances for the All Ireland Senior Football matches were over 17,000 with a Final (and replay) getting over 80,000. Crowds rugby league would be desperate for and this is without huge investment and a strong international program.
Gaelic football has to compete with hurling and rugby union. It has yet to compete, and probably wont have to, with the soccer juggernaut. It is also not really a professional game and these can make some comparisons difficult. What is striking is its more regional structure which is something that ruby league could learn from. A limitation of the Superleague is that the top teams get too strong and, even with some sort of promotion and relegation, the gap is too much which means the less well established teams rarely win (take a bow Leigh!). Like many within rugby league, the super eight concept is not one that seems to work. By adopting a two division West of Pennines and East of Pennines approach followed by an All Ireland style Finals competition culminating in a Grand Final then more teams could become competitive, thus encouraging bigger attendances for the majority of clubs. The Challenge Cup could be played without segregation and one round could occur with the Magic Weekend.
Incidentally, Catalan, Toronto, London, Toulouse and any others who wanted to join could be incorporated and even have a third division of emerging clubs. Gaelic Football already has New York and London, all the need is Paris and they have a fashion label!
More seriously, what has happened to Bradford is very sad for the sport and the city of Bradford. The past cannot be changed but rugby league needs to think how it protects its traditions which are, just as they are in Gaelic football, the lifeblood of the sport whilst living in a modern age where finance is a very stark reality.