Rugby league is important to West Yorkshire and West Yorkshire is important to rugby league. In fact, of the fully professional rugby league clubs in the world, 14% are rooted in West Yorkshire. Of the semi-professional rugby league clubs in RFL (Rugby Football League) competitions, 28% are based in West Yorkshire. Of the 10 clubs currently playing in Women's Super League, 60% are in West Yorkshire. Whilst many of those playing and coaching at those clubs grew up in West Yorkshire, professional clubs across the UK, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have also benefited at various times from the playing, coaching and other abilities of people who learned the game in West Yorkshire. Surrounding all of this is an infrastructure of schools, junior clubs, amateur clubs, businesses, media and supporters who are all an essential element of rugby league culture in West Yorkshire.
West Yorkshire has provided and continues to provide rugby league with so much of what makes it work. At the same time, rugby league forms an integral part of its essence. Unlike the vast majority of other sports, rugby league has a defined date, place and reason for its creation. On the 29th August 1895, 20 rugby football clubs met at the George Hotel in Huddersfield and formed the Northern Rugby Football Union, which became the Rugby Football League in 1922. Throughout this time, the governing body has been based in Leeds. Of those 20 founding clubs, 10 were based in the central part of the West Riding of Yorkshire that became the metropolitan county of West Yorkshire in 1974. All 20 clubs wanted to be able to make 'broken time' payments to players who had to take time off work to be able to train and play. This was against the rules of the London based Rugby Football Union and effectively discriminated against those who were otherwise unable to afford to take time off work.
West Yorkshire is therefore the birthplace of a sport that has been adopted by people around the world. It gives the area an essential part of its identity and something about which to be proud. It seems clear then that Rugby League, and its values, should be at the heart of regional democracy in West Yorkshire and regional democracy in West Yorkshire should be at the heart of rugby league. A positive future is dependent on both honouring the places in West Yorkshire that sustained the game and also developing the game globally in order to enhance the life chances of people growing up in the region's deep RL culture which should be celebrated as an unusual asset. The West Yorkshire mayor should play an active role in this.
Given that, in West Yorkshire and other regions of the post-industrial North, rugby league provides a sense of belonging and a source of pride, it therefore needs to be as professional and as competitive as possible at its highest level. This means being able to pay players well enough for the region's clubs to keep and attract the best. These players sit at the top of a complex ecosystem but, notwithstanding the importance of starting to pay players in Women's Super League, it is the sustainability of the professional game that has the biggest impact on that ecosystem's overall health. In defining the future for West Yorkshire's professional and semi-professional clubs, there needs to be due consideration given to the impact of agglomeration in the region's cities and also to models of sustainability from other sports and other urban areas where there are many clubs within a relatively small geographical space. At the Super League level, there needs to be a focus on finance not just in terms of attracting new and better sources of sponsorship (to reduce dependency on matchday income and TV revenues) but also in terms of taking transparency and corporate social responsibility more seriously. This should include detailed investigations into club finances and future audits with a strong ethical dimension. At the Championship level and below, private investment will also remain important but clubs and wider civil society should also take the opportunity provided by government interest in community ownership of sports clubs to build fan owned co-operatives supported by regional democracy as an integral part of its development. These developments should consider the advantage for such clubs of actively placing themselves as alternatives to the wealthier clubs within a city or wider region on the Newtown model.
Given this, we should lobby the Government to devolve power and resources for supporting community ownership of clubs to the West Yorkshire mayor. In March 2021, UK government launched a £150 million community ownership fund. Culture (alongside transport and skills) is also one of the main areas where the West Yorkshire mayor will have some room for innovation and, as described earlier, rugby league surely has a strong case for investment and support on cultural grounds alone. This may be rugby league's opportune moment to build fan ownership, including building on the experiences of Hunslet as a supporter run club since 2012 developing into a hybrid ownership model relying heavily on the supporters trust, but (with private investors) standing in to underwrite issues and of Bramley, reborn as an industrial and provident society and RL's first fan owned club in 2004.
The Mayor should also play an active role in advocating for the payment of Women's Super League players as a top priority. The increasing professionalisation of a Women's Super League where players already train and prepare in many cases as if they were semi-professionals should be seen as an opportunity for different sponsorship sources and TV coverage deals. However, as necessary, the founding values of rugby league suggest that just as England Rugby Union keeps its club game going through profits made from matches played at Twickenham (including corporate sponsorship and TV rights), the RFL, Super League and its clubs should use its most profitable activities to support payment to Women's Super League players until it can become sustainable in its own right.
The Mayor should also advocate for the expansion of club rugby league, both in the UK and internationally, to increase sponsorship income and create more life chances for people growing up in West Yorkshire. The mayor should actively engage with RL expansion as a means of promoting West Yorkshire's people, culture and business in overseas markets. In the foreword to the Rugby League Dividend report, Greater Manchester Mayor (and 2019 RFL President) Andy Burnham specifically highlighted the role of RL in promoting social mobility.
Finally, West Yorkshire's Mayor should also have a positive role to play in advocating for Rugby League in West Yorkshire being actively anti-discriminatory and accountable for taking steps towards under-represented groups, including the South Asian community.
Rugby League only exists because people decided to do more than just have a whinge and instead sorted things out for themselves. This should also be the fundamental nature of our Regional Democracy in West Yorkshire.
This piece is based on a longer paper published by Same Skies in June 2020. The full version can be accessed here: https://sameskiesthinktank.com/rugby-league-west-yorkshire-future-ian-martin/
Ian Martin lives in East Leeds with his family. He moved to Leeds for work over 20 years ago and previously lived in Derbyshire, Reading and Trier. In the early 2000s, Ian spent a year in Latin America, including visits to various democracy initiatives. In more recent times, he was a founder member of Yorkshire St Pauli and a presenter on East Leeds FM. He is a primary school teacher, junior rugby league coach and campaigner for human rights. Prior to becoming a teacher, he worked with local communities across Yorkshire to develop advice and other services for refugees. As well as Qualified Teacher Status, he has a BA in European Studies from Reading University and an MA in Education from Huddersfield University.
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