Is Rugby League Dying?

As crowds dwindle and interest appears to be waning, some quarters predict the shelf life of rugby league may be significantly shorter than other sports.

Here, we’ll take a look at why its popularity has fallen, how it compares to rugby union, how the British game compares to the Australian game, and what the future could hold for the sport.

Why Is Rugby League Not Popular?

Perhaps because it has such direct competition. The ‘rugby league v rugby union’ debate may feel as old as the sport itself by now, but it is an inevitable comparison and one which divides rugby fans.

As a general rule, rugby union is seen as the more fast-paced, end-to-end game of the ‘two codes’, whereas rugby league is perhaps a more traditional version, based more on brute force, defending and kicking.

men in red and white jersey shirt playing soccer during daytime

Indeed, rugby league appears to have only really caught on in England, New Zealand and Australia. By contrast, rugby union has become a more global game, due in part to the reach of the game across commonwealth countries, helped by the British armed forces’ decision to ban rugby league in the early 20th century.

Even in England, though, are just roughly 100,000 players at amateur and professional level combined compared to almost 2 million rugby union participants.

And despite the rise of viewing figures for the Super League, England’s top-flight in rugby union, which grew by more than 25 per cent in 2018 on the previous year, average attendances have also proved disappointing. That same year saw an average across the league of roughly just 8,500, which suffered a slight fall in 2019 to about 8,400.

This marked the fourth successive year in which crowds have gone down, and of course it remains to be seen how the coronavirus pandemic will affect attendances at rugby league games when indeed it is safe for spectators to return. By comparison, rugby union’s Premiership saw an average of just more than 14,000 last year.

Why Is Rugby League More Popular In Australia?

A number of reasons, really, despite the fact that rugby league actually originated in Australia about 40 years before rugby union.

For a start, rugby league is seen as the more ‘working class’ game and for that reason seems to resonate with most Australians. Rightly or wrongly, rugby union still bears the hallmarks of a sport for the privileged and private school-educated, perhaps.

Another reason may be that Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) remains free-to-air in its home country. Meanwhile, Super Rugby, the pinnacle of rugby union in Australia which sees their four best sides take on opponents from Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa, remains behind a paywall on Fox Sports and has been for the last 25 years, despite Rugby Australia’s recent efforts to change that.

It’s also becoming a more exciting watch further across the southern hemisphere, even if the money in rugby league those parts of the world doesn’t compare to that in Europe, for example. With Tonga, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea all beating the British Lions in late 2019, as well as the rise of Samoa and Fiji, the sport is perhaps seeing a more competitive edge than it has for the last few years at least.

Will Rugby League Survive?

As we alluded to in that last section, it will take that one precious commodity to keep rugby league afloat – money. To borrow a couple of paragraphs from Gavin Willacy’s article in the Guardian in November 2019:

“A leading administrator in the game told me recently that rugby league’s problem is that it is popular in poor countries. Not only that, but even if everyone in Tonga, Samoa and Fiji watched the NRL every week, that would only be 1.2 million pairs of eyeballs. There are potential sponsors, but not a massive audience.

“Papua New Guinea has a big population of more than 8 million, many of whom are obsessed by league, but it is hard to monetise that support when GDP per capita is £3,250 (137th of the 181 countries ranked by the World Bank). Papua New Guinea is rich in so many ways, but finance is not one of them.”

The COVID crisis will also no doubt exacerbate these issues back in England, too. Hull KR owner Neil Hudgell, for example, warned in April that the club ‘may not be around as a full-time elite sport come the end of the year’, while the Super League’s executive chairman Robert Elstone described this crisis as ‘the most challenging time in our 125-year history’.

There is some consolation, though. In England, rugby league received a £16 million emergency loan from the British government in April 2020 to help it recover the pandemic’s devastating impacts. Such clubs as Leeds Rhinos and Wakefield Trinity have furloughed players and staff under a government job protection scheme which guarantees 80 per cent of salaries up to £2,500 per month. Wage cuts have also been introduced

But even a figure as £16 million may only go so far to repairing some of the damage, as may a furlough scheme which ends in October, by which time it is hoped – but not yet certain – that fans will be safe to return to matches.

The Super League campaign will at least return in early August to the relief of some, if maybe not many (anymore, at least). Whether coronavirus strikes the final nail in its coffin in what feels like a death by a thousand cuts for the sport remains to be seen.

4 thoughts on “Is Rugby League Dying?”

  1. RL is dead as far as I’m concerned. Wednesday’s match killed it for me as it will kill some players with the thuggery that is encouraged against skilful players. Get them at all cost. It smacks of old Roman gladiators at each other to the death. BARBARIC.

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  2. No, rugby league isn’t dying. To think so belies a lack of knowledge of its position in the communities where it is popular and its raison d’être. It is undoubtedly poorer off the field than its wealthy rugby union cousin, but surely richer on it. I’d take issue with the fact that the article describes union as the more end-to-end game. League is generally much freer in flow – no line outs, mauls or rucks to break up play endlessly and very few scrums. The setting and resetting (and resetting) of the scrum in union and endless kicking makes for a very stop-start game punctuated repeatedly by penalties. It’s a running joke among league supporter that all union scorelines can be divided by three. The ball is in play in a rugby league match for around 65 minutes out of the 80 (this rose to 70 minutes with the [possibly] temporary suspension of scrums in the Covid season). By comparison union struggles to muster 40 minutes out of the 80 – a paltry return for spectators and players alike.

    There are numerous reasons why league didn’t spread around the globe as union did. Only one is touched upon: it being outlawed in the armed forces (and no analysis of why is discussed – the armed forces are establishment institutions since you ask, and rugby union is the sport of the establishment in many nations) but there are many more. Chief among these is the fact that anybody who played league was automatically banned from ever playing union again. Who would risk their career to try out a game that you might not enjoy and might get you a life ban? (Players were banned even for watching a game of league from the terraces). Of course union players were free to try their hand at soccer, tennis, golf, badminton, snooker but one game of league meant your union days were over. This was the main cause of league not being as widespread as union for the first century of its existence but there were more: the apartheid regime in South Africa banned rugby league (black players had to come to England to play for rugby league clubs) indeed black players were not welcome in rugby union for many years, hence the stream of black Welsh players who turned to rugby league so they could represent their nation. And, of course, there was the infamous Vichy ban on rugby league during the second world war (for which league is still seeking reparations from the French government). A similar thing happened in Yugoslavia in the 1950s/1960s – the home nations rugby unions had heard that rugby league was on the rise there so informed the Yugoslav authorities that they would not send touring teams to the country [no tours, no income] unless league was stymied. The Yugoslavs did as instructed and league has only recently returned to the nations of that country.

    None of this has gone away today: in 2015 Sol Mokdad who was attempting to organise a rugby league competition in the United Arab Emirates was imprisoned after the nation’s union authorities informed the government he was arranging an ‘illegal’ rugby event. It’s been a constant, tiring and vindictive battle since the formation of rugby league so upset the establishment in 1895. These are all major causes the article might have considered.

    That said, where league did get a foothold and bans weren’t workable because of the sheer number of rugby league teams that players could turn to, it is more popular than union. In the counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria, the east coast of Australia, Auckland and west coast New Zealand, the Pacific islands, Papua New Guinea, and pockets of “treiziste’ southern France, League is the dominate code, mainly because in those areas rugby union was unable to successfully bully league and its players as it could elsewhere, or call on its cohorts in the establishment. And, when viewed side by side, spectators could make a straight choice as to which they preferred without prejudice. League always came out on top.

    And, if league is dying, whereas it was once the preserve of just four nations in the 1970s, now it is played by more than 50. Brazil, Norway, Jamaica and Greece will all make their debuts in the forthcoming world cups (men’s, women’s and wheelchair). League might be a poorer relation in terms of income than union, and it may have pretty much disappeared from mainstream media and TV (although every match of this year’s world cup tournaments will be on the BBC), but it’s going nowhere.

    Another joke in league circles is that someone, somewhere, on a regular basis gives rugby league ‘just five years’. Perhaps most notable of these was Frank Keating who five years after his 2001 prediction was inclined to write the following https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2006/aug/22/comment.gdnsport3. But Frank wasn’t alone – ever since 1895 people have been giving rugby league ‘just five years’. All have been wrong.

    Rugby league will be with us in 2026 and beyond…

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    • Bravo Michael O’Hare. Rugby Union is more chance of dying in Australia, being perched so far behind AFL, Soccer and the NRL, (almost to the point of irrelevance), than League is of dying worldwide.

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  3. And one further point. Rugby union was already long established in Australia before rugby league arrived in 1907. As in Britain, the impetus was ‘broken time’ – the right of working players to gain compensation for work shifts missed by being selected to play for their rugby teams on working days.

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