The 2008 Rugby League World Cup kicked off today in Australia with a fixture which would be difficult to imagine in many other sports: England v Papua New Guinea. Unintentionally, the match and indeed the whole tournament demonstrate how difficult it is for even a successful sport to develop beyond its heartland. A commendable sport in many ways, rugby league has managed to live within its means, working with local communities to attract large crowds to matches between talented and committed players. The sport’s authorities have not been afraid to innovate, successfully switching to a summer season in the UK, introducing video replays for refereeing decisions and accommodating the needs of sponsors.
And yet the main support for rugby league has stubbornly remained rooted in the north of England, Australia (especially New South Wales and Queensland) and New Zealand. The bold and successful introduction of the French club Catalans Dragons into the Super League in 2006 is probably helping reinvigorate the game in France and a new team from Wales is planned but elsewhere progress is slow.
The Rugby League World Cup has a complicated format designed to ensure some attractive and competitive matches but the players from the ten teams are almost all drawn from the Engage Super League (England and France) and the National Rugby League (Australia and New Zealand) and many have switched nationality. A final between Australia and either New Zealand or England seems inevitable.
Every international sports federation makes well-intentioned efforts to develop interest and participation beyond the range of countries which, by quirk of history or culture, tend to dominate. Despite a few excellent examples of progress (tennis in Russia, rugby union in Italy), the range of countries capable of competing at the top level in the popular professional sports remains fairly stable over time. Perhaps only in football and athletics can a world-class performer emerge from anywhere in the world.
The chicken and egg rule applies to media interest: uncompetitive athletes result in little media coverage; without media coverage it’s difficult to generate participation and investment to raise standards, especially in team sports.
In what are likely to be difficult financial times, the best strategy for federations and sponsors may be to secure the heartland of their sport, to focus on their strengths and to accept the fact that they are not football.
The Rugby League World Cup is being followed avidly by the Australian media (see for example, League HQ) and some UK media (such as Sky Sports) but it’s not going to reach much of the rest of the globe. Ambition should be tempered with reality.