Playoff payoff drop-off …?

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I’m worried about playoff payoff drop off. No, that’s not United’s new Russian centre-forward. It’s just a catchy headline to summarise a very real dilemma facing not only the Rugby Football League (RFL) but all those interested in the long-term health of a thrilling British sport.

I enjoyed a marvellous holiday in the USA recently, so missing the beginning of the playoffs, but I checked-in regularly to keep abreast of the rugby league scene. Even from 6,000 miles away the internet could not disguise the fact that fans have hardly been flocking to rugby leagues end of season bonanza.

I scratched my head at the 9,000 (‘amended’ to 12,000) crowd for the Wigan-Leeds encounter, but that wasn’t the only disappointing attendance.

Why is that? Especially when the final itself all but sells-out an expanded Old Trafford on an annual basis.

Well, I believe it is because of a certain amount of greed and complacency; either within the RFL or Super League’s member clubs. Either way the denizens of Red Hall ought to have given the game a better steer than they have of late with poor quality decisions under-mining the integrity and brand of a thriving playoff concept.

The Super League Playoff brand has been seriously, maybe fatally weakened by successive mistakes, some small, some big, but all of them under-mining a terrific concept.

The Challenge Cup.

Mistakes such as taking a flagship competition and moving it from a perfectly satisfactory May-time date – one that boosted early season interest in the game – into a spot that directly impacts on the performance, and hence entertainment value of them game’s major franchises

The move to August has done little to revive the Challenge Cup. Attendances in the early rounds and even in the semi-finals continue to dip below the Super League average. And, whilst the return to Wembley has boosted the attendance in the final there are plenty of empty seats on view there too; not just in the Club Wembley area either.

The playing of a major final takes an immense emotional and physical toll on all participants at the time when the competition for playoff places is at its fiercest. Even the losing semi-finalists take a blow to confidence and fitness levels.

Whilst fans too have their attention diverted from the real prize. Lured by the glitter of ‘the Cup’ and of Wembley, they are hit with another call on their leisure ‘pound’. A pound they no doubt claw back when playoff games mean season tickets no longer get you a seat.

This year the Warrington Wolves smashed Leeds Rhinos in the final and at that point looked likely to take their place at Old Trafford after securing a second place finish. Instead – jaded – they faded badly down the stretch, with St Helens edging past them to secure an unlikely second-place finish, before Huddersfield Giants sprang a mighty upset at the HJS to kill-off the Wolves’ Grand Final hopes.

But more than that, although Old Trafford is a terrific venue it cannot but be overshadowed by the spectacle and experience of playing at Wembley (even though Wembley isn’t Wembley anymore). It might be a small thing but it contributes to confusion in the minds of the fans and observers of the game. If playoffs are the pinnacle, why aren’t they at the national stadium? Or is Wembley the showpiece final?

The weakening of the playoff begins.

Club Call.

Another contributing factor is the ridiculous ‘Club Call’, which sees the coach of the highest placed surviving team selecting his semi-final opponents. Not only is this an affront to the integrity of the game, it is an embarrassing spectacle all round.

The unfortunate coach grimly tries to minimise any propaganda value in the pick by talking-up his selection, which everyone knew a week in advance anyway. Whilst the opposition professes their determination to prove the selection wrong.

No matter how many press-releases the RFL churn out quoting coaches and pseudo-celebrities and CEOs who all believe the Club Call to be a spiffing wheeze, this is a blight on the game and further devalues the competition.

If the competition is so grand, so important, so compelling, why does it need a cheap and tacky gimmick to decide its finalists?

Again it’s a small thing, but the perceived value of the competition is undermined in the eyes of fans. And by fans I don’t only mean those who turn-up week-on-week, but those who pick and choose their games. The floating voters who swell the crowds at big games.

Another blow to the Grand FInal brand.

Minor Premiership.

Another blow was the introduction of a prize for the winners of the league; the so called minor premiers. By instituting this the RFL showed that they didn’t understand their competition at all, so how can the rest of us judge it?

Is it fair that a team strives for 26 games, putting on consistently good performances to win the league, only to see one bad 80-minute performance in the playoffs cost them the chance of Grand Final glory?

Undoubtedly, no! But what the RFL and many pundits saw as a flaw, was in fact the greatest strength of the playoff system. It was brutally, callously cut-throat. It pitted the best against the best and tested each severely.

That adrenalin-pumping realisation that it all comes down to the next 80 minutes was what gave the RL playoff system its unique pulling-power and attraction. It was do-or-die and every team in it knew they could afford no slips. The fans knew it too and responded accordingly.

But now there’s already a league champion, so what are they playing for again? What’s the point? Wigan were the best team in the league over the whole season so why should we bother with playoffs?

The crowning of league champions has fundamentally undermined the foundations of the playoffs. It returns us to the days of the Merit Trophy and the end of season Premiership. Check the attendances for those. Saints-Wigan at Old Trafford, say 33,000. Say what?

Well, that’s where the RFL has us headed again. We don’t need playoffs if the league leaders are getting a cup. As a fan it’s just another way for the game to get its hand in my pocket.

And more gloss is off the Grand Final concept.

Expanded Format.

Greed, pure and simple, or else arrogance maybe; there can be no other reason why the playoff system was expended from a top-5 to a top-8 format.

How can it be right that more than half of the league qualify for an end of season playoff? If you dilute the quality of the teams involved, you dilute more than just the competitive nature of the individual games, you dilute the whole concept. It becomes a competition for average teams, not a proving ground for the elite.

The under-pinning reason that playoff football is so intense, so exhilarating, so brutal, is that it pits the very best teams against each other. Teams forged on the anvil of tough week-on-week competition over a league season. Teams tested to the limits.

One of the great spinoff benefits of the playoffs was always supposed to be the level of intensity it introduced our players too. An intensity more akin to the Australian National Rugby League (NRL), was meant to hone the new generation of international stars.

I’m betting Super League fans could name three, four, maybe five teams who could be competitive in the NRL. The top-5 playoff format was therefore the closest most English fans would get to seeing that level of club rugby league over an extended period of games.

Games that demanded every player give of their best, producing high octane rugby league. Games that created heroes and legendary moments. No one who watched it will forget the Saints’ miracle ‘Wide to West’ win for example.

Games that produce that level of commitment and entertainment and passion, those games will always draws fans.

But now we have teams like the gallant Crusaders in the playoffs. Not to decry their efforts this season, but are they really playoff quality? Really?

By diluting the quality of the participants the RFL has dealt a potentially fatal blow to its cash cow playoff format.

It’s ironic that an organisation so apparently conscious of branding and marketing could make so many decisions that have negatively impacted its greatest asset and strongest brand. Yet, if the RFL does not act now to correct the drift, the playoffs and Grand FInal will continue to fade.

Yet the latest press release from the RFL does not fill me with hope. It says:

“Meanwhile, the 2010 Engage Super League play-offs have broken all box office records with the eight matches watched by an aggregate crowd of 96,703, a 40 per cent increase on 2009 when the eight ties attracted a combined attendance of 68,995.”

Now on the face of that, it’s good right? Certainly the self congratulatory tone of the release implies that the RFL think so.

Well consider that the 2007 six team format’s five playoff games attracted an average of 12,309. Compared with the 12,087 from the above quote, which includes the huge attendance at the Hull derby game and the ‘amended’ attendance from the Wigan-Leeds game (if you take the published figures from the Press Association then this years average is 11,821).

But whichever way you cut it, the game’s complacent leaders seem content to still be attracting the same level of support for the flagship competition now as they were four years ago.

Standing still is losing ground.