Rugby League ‘Transformation or Die’

Ken Jones is a successful Business Consultant whose initial career was in the Military serving with many notable Regiments including the Special Forces.

Since leaving the Army Ken spent 20 years in the Telecoms industry for T Mobile, O2 and as Vice President International for Marconi Services.

In his career as a Consultant Ken has worked for several Blue-Chip organisations providing Change and Transformation projects, his clients included the BBC, Npower, Tunstall Telehealth, McGee, Samsung and the RFL.

Ken has a wide-ranging experience in Rugby League not only at the governing body but on the front line with Featherstone Rovers, Sheffield Eagles and Bradford Bulls RLFC.


Transformation or Die It is now time to be open and honest with ourselves, the game of Rugby league has been struggling for many years to not just grow; but to simply survive. Operating costs (coupled with reduced revenues (lower crowds, poor sponsorship and reduction in commercial income due to increased competition) has created a perfect storm.

Covid-19 is not the cause of the situation, it has simply accelerated the problems which have beset the game.

Things started to really go awry after the vote in Manchester to essentially allow a break away by Super League to run its own competition. As was stated many times during this process the game would become fractured and incur significant additional costs which the game could not fund.

There is perhaps a sudden realisation that maybe this was not the way to go, however to simply continue to bumble along hoping upon hope that the virus disappears and we can continue as normal, is not facing up to reality.

What we must to do now is stop all competition for the season and conduct a full, open, honest and radical review of the game as a whole. Now is not the time for emotion or to be distracted by tradition.

Change is best managed when you are in control, it requires a radical and painful Transformation to ensure it is fit for the future, it needs to re-focus on becoming truly sustainable, here is a radical 10-point blueprint for success:

  1. A Clear Strategic Direction – This has to be a clear and concise realisation of what we are, what we do well, and what we do badly. The starting point for any effective strategic plan is the “Vision” and what success looks like.
  2. Transformation – A whole game review undertaken by independent professionals. This review is a full top down, sidewise review looking at, Skills, Staff, Systems, Structure, Leadership Style and Systems. Most radical of all is the Structure, currently too top heavy and with too many Clubs offering a poor return in investment and a major consolidation would be required.
  3. A Professional Game Board – Urgently needed to be the driving force behind both any changes needed for implementation but also to ensure the game is managed effectively and remove conflict of interest from decision making.
  4. Sticking to the Knitting – This is a Marketing Term which means stick to what you are good at (Core Competencies), let’s be honest we are poor at expansion. Let’s look at Paris, Wales on numerous occasions, plus the multiple reincarnations of London. We should be honest with ourselves and accept that we are a Northern game. We can be proud of our heritage, focus on our strengths and remove the weaknesses. Rugby League simply cannot afford financially to continue with an expansion strategy that clearly has little benefit in the current climate.
  5. Reduction/Removal of Overseas Players – Overseas players which do bring enjoyment to the game is unfortunately costing the Clubs large amounts in financial resources (Wages/Travel/Schooling etc), which perhaps could be better spent elsewhere.
  6. Focus on Home Grown Players – Every £ saved on overseas players could be spent on developing our own talent and growing participation. If we use Bradford as an example, (even after all the troubles that they have encountered) they have maintained a superb academy and player pathway system. This has netted some substantial revenues to ensure their survival. Hull KR have designed and developed an Academy system that will benefit them for years to come. This in turn aids the National Team by producing top quality talent.
  7. Franchise – Bring back Franchising but not as it was previously, by implementing a fixed 3-year term governed by strict KPI’s the game would benefit by periods of stability and growth. The Franchise would not be simply for Super League but the levels below to ensure consistency and ensure any Clubs wishing to be promoted via the system are fit for purpose. Further benefits are sustainable growth and businesses capable of moving seamlessly between levels of competition.
  8. New Governance – The game in many ways is stifled by regulation and not flexible to be able to react quickly to issues or opportunities. Continuous rounds of consultation followed by poor decision making has hampered the growth and effectiveness of the game. A new governance model is urgently needed to ensure the game can meet the challenges of the future.
  9. Business Ethos – Rugby League needs a greater approach to working as a business at all levels, the focus on player spend hampers Clubs with little ability to invest in the resources to run a business, being more reliant on well-meaning volunteers. Club’s should be working to a standard structure with Skills appropriate to their needs. KPI’s would therefore drive the need to invest in appropriate skills and resources in order to run and grow businesses effectively.
  10. Consolidation – Not enough money to go around what should we do? Consolidation is critical requirement, we have too many underperforming Clubs both on and off the field. The game simply cannot afford to maintain so many Clubs. With a new TV deal probably not producing the same levels of income, distribution levels are expected to dramatically reduce. Reducing the number of Clubs will ensure a slimmer more sustainable financial model for the game, the player pool will be improved rather than damaged as players can move elsewhere and the games themselves become more competitive.
__________________________________________________ Front Row Legal are a boutique law firm that specialises in Sport, Media and Business Law in England and Wales. They have specialist knowledge in these areas of law, which means they can help where many law firms won’t have the experience. They are based in Leeds with a national client base.

Published May 1, 2020

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