Football is on the brink of implosion.

A proposed European Super League which once felt like a threat to try and coerce more money out of UEFA and the Champions League, now feels very real and fans are not happy.

The storm raging in football right now has evoked memories of the bitter dispute over the control of top-flight rugby league in Australia and New Zealand in the mid-1990s.

Super League, backed by Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation, competed with the ARL (Australian Rugby League), supported by Kerry Packer and Optus Vision, in and out of court for broadcasting rights and supremacy in the sport.

Super League had attracted several clubs disenchanted with the existing administration, and introduced two new clubs, as it attempted to establish itself as the dominant competition.

After much legal action, when the ARL tried to block the new league, Super League ran one season parallel to the ARL's in 1997.

At the conclusion of that season, a peace deal was reached and the two leagues united to form the National Rugby League, which of course continues today. The outcome has been a success but it took many years to finally get there.

Before peace was reached the sport suffered immeasurably, none more so than the supporters who fought to keep their clubs, fought for their sport and fought to see sport win out over money. Sounds familiar?

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Just like 25 years ago in Australia and England, football in this country is now facing a similar battle and a top sports lawyer has today warned a similar court battle could ensue.

“I think there are going to be legal proceedings in football over what is happening now,” leading sports lawyer Richard Cramer, of Leeds-based Front Row Legal, told Rugby League Live.

“It just feels inevitable, and a little bit of déjà vu with what happened in Australia with rugby league in 1994.

“It’s a huge opportunity for these big football clubs but whether it’ll happen I don’t know because there is such huge opposition to it.

“In rugby league back in 1994, Murdoch came along with his own subscription TV platform and saw huge opportunities, especially with rugby league in Australia.

“There was a huge war which spilled over into all sorts of litigation and of course it spilled over here as well. It was the grabbing of a prized asset because rugby league in New South Wales and Queensland was a huge attraction.

“Sky already had the game over here but what they really wanted was an ally. Therefore Maurice Lindsay in effect abandoned any allegiance with the ARL, the Australian Rugby League as it was then, to go along with the concept of the Murdoch-backed Super League.

“That’s how Super League developed as a concept over here, but really the British game was just a bi-product of a huge war which developed between Packer and Murdoch in 1994. In Australia the game has gone from strength to strength.”

The NRL may be reaping the rewards of that bitter war, but what about Super League, 25 years since its formation?

Cramer feels it remains a sport deeply rooted in its northern enclaves with no real desire to grow beyond its traditional boundaries.

“I’ve got a feeling that the sport as a whole is just afraid of expansion – there is a fear,” he explains.

“I think rugby league in this country likes the cosiness of knowing it’s a northern sport. Sometimes they quite like the idea that it’s a European Super League, which is what it was intended to be in 1994-95.

“Murdoch came along with his millions and his vision was a European Super League with two French teams, starting off with Paris St Germain.

“The intention was to create another one and that obviously happened with Catalans, which has been a success, but there was going to be a team in Barcelona and other international sides too.

Virgin owner Richard Branson
Virgin owner Richard Branson

“I think that’s why Richard Branson got involved with London Broncos; because he bought into that vision of it being a worldwide game.

“Certainly when Super League was formed, the intention was never that it would remain a northern-dominated sport.

“The intention was to expand, but as we’ve seen repeatedly, almost every time there is any form of expansion, panic buttons are pressed early on.

“There doesn’t seem to be the support for any expansion. And yet if you take Australia as the benchmark, Melbourne was always going to be a slow burn. They have had a blip with the salary cap, but they have been superb contributors to the Australian game.

“Brisbane came into the competition and have been a success. They have expanded with the Titans, which has had its ups and downs but nevertheless they have stuck with the Gold Coast, and of course the North Queensland Cowboys.

“Their approach is often that, while there will be some speed bumps along the road, ultimately you just have to stick with the process.

“The next expansion might be Perth, but they will have learned from previous lessons that it won’t be plain sailing and that sometimes you just have to stick with it.

“In this country, we give up too easily when a club hits problems.”

Cramer cites the whole Toronto Wolfpack saga as proof of the British game’s insularity.

He adds: “Toronto was a classic case where they were welcomed with open arms because they contributed to money coming into the game and the RFL liked that idea.

“But when suddenly the vision became reality, and Toronto got into Super League unbelievably quickly, there was almost this universal of resentment and fear towards them.

“Leeds Rhinos were the exception, but the consensus among clubs was ‘oh, we have to travel to Toronto, it’s an expense, the players will be fatigued’.

“All the negatives came tearing through and it was almost as if Super League and the game couldn’t wait to abandon the project.

A general view of Lamport Stadium
A general view of Lamport Stadium

“When Toronto hit the buffers, with the owner having cash problems and the pandemic unfolding, instead of coming to their rescue, it felt like a huge sigh of relief to most Super League clubs that the Toronto project had been abandoned.

“That sent a message that, while on paper the idea of expansion is appealing, in reality the sport is actually more comfortable in its own skin – just being a northern sport.

“Maybe that is its strength and a realisation that there isn’t going to be any form of expansion.

“But the Toronto saga showed the game has no desire to stick with expansion and secondly, it will scare off any form of expansion in the future.

“If you’re an entrepreneur who wants to bring in a New York or an Ottawa, it brings huge doubts over further expansion franchises now.

“Now undoubtedly the pandemic has played a huge part in what happened, but was that almost the excuse to drop Toronto?

“So while we like the idea of having teams outside the north of England, whether it’s in London or Paris or Toronto, the harsh reality is that there is almost a fear amongst the club owners.

“That makes it very difficult if you are a leader in the sport, a Robert Elstone or a Ralph Rimmer.”

Elstone, of course, recently quit as head of Super League and some form of realignment with the Rugby Football League now seems inevitable.

But the constant meddling and changing of structure is, according to Cramer, making the game less appealing to a broadcaster such as Sky, whose offer for the next TV deal is set to be significantly reduced.

He adds: “Rugby league needs to expand and get better TV money to keep up with rugby union, but there is almost this fear that the game is just cutting off opportunities which might present themselves from capital venture companies because of its attitude towards expansion.

“It’s a northern sport as it is, based largely along the M62 corridor, and if that is the permanency of rugby league going forward then where are the capital venture companies?

“Why is the TV deal about to drop rather than be increased?

“I think the game has reached a crossroads where it says ‘is it a northern sport?’ and then accept that and just muddle along and miss opportunities which might present themselves.

“If you look at what capital venture companies are doing, they have got a stake in numerous competitions, the latest one being the Six Nations.

“There is potential talk of the All Blacks being taken over by a capital venture company, so it’s inevitable that rugby union will further overtake rugby league.

“Capital venture companies will want a return on their investment and that’s why this European Super League in football, for these club owners like the Glazers at Manchester United and John Henry at Liverpool, it’s all about money.

“You worry about rugby league because, while I’ve always said it’s a great product, it’s way behind rugby union in financial terms, never mind football.”

The game outside of Super League is expected to take a major hit in distributions from the next TV deal but Cramer can see the logic in the top flight being the main financial beneficiaries of a broadcasting contract.

Cramer asks: “If Super League is your prime gold star asset in the sport, why not put more resource into that to get better quality players to create more interest on TV and on the terraces?

“That would mean you have more chance of attracting a capital venture company.

“Yet it is not a unified sport because the game has been almost tearing itself apart which resulted in the breakaway three years ago which has not worked out.

“There are too many cycles which go up and down and there is not enough stability.

“In rugby union, whilst there is always fear about a capital venture company coming in, they still retain their own autonomy so it’s win-win.

“Rugby union is a worldwide sport and the Lions tour is going to be huge, so I think it’s dangerous to even compare rugby league to rugby union now.

“The irony was that, for 100 years, rugby league was professional and rugby union only went professional in the mid-1990s yet they have moved streets ahead.

“Perhaps rugby league needs to realise that it is just a northern sport and it plays to its strengths.

“But you’re not going to see the best quality players in rugby league.

“Look at George Ford and Owen Farrell, two talents who grew up playing rugby league but moved to rugby union for the career opportunities it presented, namely the money on offer.

“Other than perhaps in the NRL, Ford and Farrell could never have earnt in rugby league what they have earnt in rugby union.”

Super League chief executive Robert Elstone being interviewed before Hull FC's play-off clash with Warrington Wolves
Super League chief executive Robert Elstone being interviewed before Hull FC's play-off clash with Warrington Wolves

Cramer fears rugby league will be left behind as a minority sport and a “stocking filler” for Sky during the summer.

He believes some Super League clubs face a part-time existence in the future, adding: “Unless you get visionaries who come in and want to take the sport to a different level, it’s impossible for it to thrive.

“Robert Elstone was brought in as the man who wanted to do that, but for whatever reasons it really came to nothing

“Therefore, is the sport still living in the Eddie Waring days of the up and unders?

“You’ll always find the wealthy clubs like Wigan, St Helens, Warrington, Leeds and Hull, who have huge fanbases, can always sustain full-time professionalism.

“But other teams like Salford, Wakefield and Huddersfield, if they are surviving on crowds of just 2,000 every other week then it’s just not sustainable.

“Overall, there is a greater chance of regression that progression in British rugby league, I would say.”