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Rugby league’s major shake-up – What are the new proposals from IMG?

A general view of Betfred branded Super League balls (Zac Goodwin/PA)
A general view of Betfred branded Super League balls (Zac Goodwin/PA)

Rugby league is set for a major shake-up under new proposals by global sports media giants IMG, with automatic promotion and relegation axed and clubs subjected to a grading system which will determine their status within the game.

Here, the PA news agency answers some of the key questions emerging from Wednesday’s presentation to clubs and the media in Manchester.

What exactly is IMG proposing?

IMG envisage a three-tier grading system based on a broad range of on and off-field criteria. Clubs earning category ‘A’ status will be immune from relegation, while those achieving category ‘B’ will be re-assessed annually. Category ‘B’ clubs take up the spare places in a 12-team top tier, but run the risk of being replaced by new category ‘A’ teams if they do not ascend to the higher standard.

What about promotion and relegation?

Hull FC v Toulouse Olympique – Betfred Super League – MKM Stadium
Toulouse were relegated from Super League in 2022 but the proposal is for promotion and relegation between the top two tiers to be scrapped (Richard Sellers/PA)

The proposal is to scrap it between the first and second tiers from the 2025 season onwards. Clubs will still move up, but will have to achieve category ‘A’ status, or rank high enough among the category ‘B’ teams to take up one of the remaining slots. Promotion and relegation between the second tier and the third tier is set to continue to be based on playing performance alone.

Will any new clubs be formed for the new competition?

London Broncos v Leeds Rhinos – Betfred Super League – Ealing Trailfinders Rugby Club
London Broncos were previously in the Super League and the capital has been singled out as a key area of growth by IMG (Tess Derry/PA)

Any new clubs would have to start in the third tier and work towards attaining category ‘A’ status, which IMG stress is highly unlikely to be granted in advance of a proven business model. IMG singled out London as a key area of growth, but again a club from the capital – be it the current London Broncos or a newly-established outfit – would be required to achieve the criteria in advance of their potential elevation. Initially, only two international clubs will be allowed – presumably French pair Catalans Dragons and Toulouse.

What other changes are in store?

Huddersfield Giants v Salford Red Devils – Betfred Super League – St James’ Park
‘Magic Weekend’ could be scrapped as part of IMG’s proposals (Owen Humphreys/PA)

IMG say they want to create a structure that emphasises the importance of the international game, with a schedule designed to facilitate an annual mid-season fixture, and an end-of-season international window. To help streamline the domestic game in this regard, they want to do away with the unpopular ‘loop’ fixtures – in which two clubs play each other three or more times each season – and the long-standing ‘Magic Weekend’, in which all top-flight clubs play at the same venue over two days. IMG stressed the continued importance of the Challenge Cup, whose final will move to its traditional month of May.

Are the proposals guaranteed to go ahead?

York City Knights v Wigan Warriors – Betfred Challenge Cup – Third Round – LNER Community Stadium
York City Knights have given their cautious backing to the proposals through the club’s owner Clint Goodchild (Richard Sellers/PA)

All 37 current professional and semi-professional clubs will get to vote on the proposals next month. There is an almost unanimous acknowledgement that something needs to change in the domestic game, but it is not yet clear whether a majority consider IMG’s plans the answer. York City Knights owner Clint Goodchild has given his cautious backing, but this year’s League One winners Keighley Cougars have already expressed grave concerns over the plan to do away with the jeopardy of promotion and relegation.

What happens if the plans are voted down?

It would be a gigantic embarrassment not only for IMG, in the first phase of their 12-year ‘strategic partnership’, but also for the RFL and Super League, who have invested so much time and effort in trying to establish a new structure for the domestic game. But the chances are that any conflicts of interest would be relatively minor, and capable of being altered in a way that brings a working majority of the clubs on board.