IMG, the global media company, has promised that radical proposals to overhaul rugby league – including a grading system to determine which clubs play in Super League – will bring about significant positive change.
On perhaps the most important day for the sport since switching to a summer season in 1995, IMG recommendations form part of the first stage of a 12-year strategic partnership signed this year.
That includes the removal of conventional promotion and relegation between Super League and the Championship from 2024. Clubs will be graded Category A or B based on on- and off‑field metrics that will be finalised over the coming year. They will then be told their grading at the end of next season, the last to have promotion and relegation by points and positions.
Gradings will be introduced on an illustrative basis in 2024 before the system will be rolled out in 2025. Category A clubs are assured of a place in the top flight while the remaining Super League places will be then taken by the highest-ranking Category B clubs.
IMG hopes that will drive standards across the game and the Category B clubs would eventually become Category A through off‑field investment and on-field progression. Once Super League has 12 Category A clubs, the competition would expand, welcoming the next highest-ranked Category B clubs.
IMG’s vice president of sport, Matt Dwyer, said rugby league needs to focus on improving its product – the off-field presentation of the sport – rather than the game, with an obsession over league structure unlikely to result in significant long-term change.
Speaking in Manchester, he said: “There’s been a view that if we magically put the right combination together that’s going to drive a huge increase in fanbase. Our view is we’ve been looking in the wrong parts of the game.”
A significant overhaul of the domestic calendar would be aimed at improving the on-field product. From 2024, loop fixtures will be removed in Super League and the competition will comprise of just 22 weekly rounds. That will reduce demands on players and, says IMG, improve the standard of the competition. IMG did not rule out renaming Super League, a topic which will be discussed in stage two of their consultation process.
A dedicated international window every mid-season and switching the Challenge Cup final from August to May are also on the agenda. Clubs will meet on 13 October to discuss the plans and vote on them, with the expectation being they will be approved and IMG’s changes will be endorsed.
That would give clubs a two-year window to reach Category A status before the system is fully implemented in 2025. The Guardian has been told the plans have been received well among most clubs, believing the sport has to be “bold and brave” in backing IMG’s plans.