In contrast to the bitterly cold December evening, the forty or so Harlequins RL fans that made the trek over to The Stoop last night were given a warm welcome by new CEO Paul Brown. The event, the first in a proposed series, is intended to reconnect club and fans, to address concerns, and to share information where possible. Over the course of two hours Brown and head coach Brian McDermott covered a whole host of on and off field matters, ranging from attendances, marketing, match day experiences, merchandising, the franchising process (euphemistically re-titled “licenses” by Red Hall), player recruitment and development structures.
Brown was never less than honest about the scale of challenges faced, in particular admitting that a major sponsor for the forthcoming season has yet to be finalised, although a potential trade off between pure revenue and the capacity of the major sponsor to raise the profile of Quins RL may be considered. On a more positive note it was confirmed that the link-up with Harlequins RU would run through till at least 2010, assuaging fears that 2008 could see it come to an end. The rugby union outfit have been immensely supportive of Quins RL, recognising that it takes time to build a stable proposition following years of instability, whilst there are still many ways the rugby league club can learn from the recent successes of the rugby union club.
It was openly acknowledged that crowd figures remain poor and that a more integrated strategy towards raising attendances is required. Throughout the Super League era the club has produced innovative and individually successful marketing activities, but has failed to find a common thread linking them together to build continuous improvement. The distribution of tickets through amateur clubs, through the schools development programme and similar community activities were all raised, with the ultimate concession that all of these channels and many others, working in concert, will be required to deliver growth.
Proactive attempts are being made to raise media profile, but the domination of the media landscape by soccer, especially in print media, is one driven by the demands of the media business itself and is not easily resolved. The growth of rugby league participation in London may be impressive, but a chicken and egg situation exists with media coverage; the Quins RL brand and the profile of the sport as a whole needing to be raised so they become more valuable to the media. Media contact Joanna Lester has driven recent improvements in the club’s information strategy, boosting the news feed to the website and the supply of press releases that can be picked up by sports editors, whilst the overall online media strategy is under review.
From a franchising/licensing perspective the management recognise that a London based license is not a given, the RFL is taking the matter extremely seriously, if not only to ensure that the end result is a step forward, but to prevent legal challenges from clubs that miss out. A robust, balanced package of measures will be required, including sound long-term business planning, player development commitments, the delivery of a modern entertainment package, as well as competitiveness on the pitch. Whilst crowd figures will undoubtedly be a negative, it will almost certainly be offset by the positive role played spreading rugby league beyond traditional markets.
The introduction of the active salary cap in 2008 will increase the technical demands on administration, but it is not one that holds any fear. Whilst some clubs may feel they can gain advantage by testing the cap to its limit, or by finding loopholes, the management of Quins RL recognise that for smaller clubs a commitment to establishing a genuine level playing field is worth far more than the short-term benefits of subverting the cap.
Moving to on field matters McDermott was upbeat about the strength of his squad, citing the stability of retaining 21 out of 25 first grade players from last season and previous criticism aimed at the club for making wholesale changes every year. He admitted that there will be no big name signings this year, with just one further signing alluded to, but the squad has retained stars such as Scott Hill and Mark McLinden, with great things expected from Hill in particular following a patchy first season. The key is that a strong core team now exists, with enough depth in place to cover injuries to first pick players.
The decision of Henry Fa'afili to renege on his contract was clearly a disappointment, with the matter now in the hands of the club’s legal representatives. McDermott was open about the difficulty attracting big name players but refused to countenance paying over the odds, suggesting that the short-term franchising concerns of certain clubs had allowed some fairly average players to inflate their salaries. A process has now been put in place to vet potential signings more thoroughly, to ensure they understand the challenges faced by relocating to London, but to also reduce the risk of the club being let down in future.
McDermott made it clear he is leading a deliberate player recruitment and development strategy, both to reduce the reliance on players brought in, but also to ensure compliance with new competition rules on locally developed players. The progress being made by the club’s player development system is something that genuinely excites McDermott, a man not known for flights of fantasy. Although he stresses that the system is not yet perfected, he is quick to point out the trickle of first team squad players emerging; such as Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Tony Clubb and Michael Worrincy who are already establishing themselves, and those on their way through such as Lamont Bryan and Will Sharp.
What is particularly pleasing for McDermott is that unlike teams in rugby league’s northern heartlands, who fight over a geographically limited talent pool, Quins RL sits alone atop an expanding pyramid of feeder clubs and development programmes whose youngsters aspire towards just one professional club. It is only a matter of time before the current trickle becomes a fully fledged conveyor belt of talent.
The overall message from the club is one of optimism, tinged with a refreshing honesty and pragmatism about the realities faced. It’s clear that Paul Brown wants to involve the supporters in the direction of the club, not only as a way of placating concerns, but to find positive ways forward.