Creating the fan before the player is a founding principle of the Rugby Football League’s Sky Try campaign, serving as a glowing example of how the success of a participation project should be measured by more than simply statistics. As part of the RFL’s ongoing journey to swell the ‘rugby league family’, RFL Development Director Sarah-Jane Gray says providing social impact and memorable personal experiences also count towards a scheme’s success.
‘I am not a number’, wailed the central character, Number 6, in the opening sequence of 1960s hit television series The Prisoner.
Whether you remember the original drama with Patrick McGoohan or its modern-day remake, the iconic line should strike a chord with those who work for National Governing Bodies in the areas of development and participation.
Improving the health of your sport, in terms of boosting the numbers of people who play the game, is the driving factor behind every participation model. But at the heart of every scheme – its underpinning value – should also be the health and wellbeing of its players.
The Rugby Football League do a brilliant job – as do so many other governing bodies – of never losing sight of the fact that participants are flesh and blood first and foremost, not dots on a graph, colours on a pie chart, lines on a table or individual units of data collected for statistical analysis.
Neglecting the human element, and focusing entirely on facts and figures, totals and targets, is the industry equivalent of a high tackle… a dangerous game to play.
As the RFL’s Development and Public Affairs Director, Sarah-Jane Gray is charged with growing participation by working with partners across the game to develop enticing environments for current and potential participants, effective coaching systems and a competition structure that attracts new blood while encouraging existing players to stay and succeed.
And while faced with the customary pressures that are an inescapable part of all NGB development roles – with one eye always alert to any Active People Survey report – it soon becomes clear in our discussion at Rugby League HQ that Sarah-Jane has hit on the perfect balance.
Increasing the fan base
The Sky Try campaign was launched in 2015 and over the next few years will help 700,000 children and young people enjoy rugby league.
The schools initiative is designed to give youngsters a high quality introduction to the sport and, in the longer term, help them find playing opportunities at local community clubs to further develop their interest.
In 2016 alone more than 80,000 children were involved in the initiative and more than 100,000 children between the ages of 14 and 16 were playing the game regularly at school and community clubs.
‘Sky Try is largely around inspiring the players and fans of the future through the Sky brand and also through its association with professional rugby league clubs,’ says Sarah-Jane.
‘The bulk of the activity is focused on delivering to primary age children but it has a secondary element as well, with some Rugby League Foundations delivering to girls and others supporting the boys’ talent pathway.
‘Where it differs from in-curriculum six-week block activity is the big connection it has to being a fan – so the trips to the stadium, the opportunity to be flagbearers or mascots or playing on the pitch at a Super League stadium or at a major event like the Magic Weekend or the Challenge Cup final.’
The RFL pride themselves on the smartness and inclusivity of the campaign. They accept that not every child who receives a block of coaching from a former professional might be persuaded to join a club. However, they might be inspired to do just that if they are treated to an entertaining all-round rugby league experience.
Playing in front of tens of thousands of cheering fans, or being part of the match-day drama as it unfolds is a lure that coaching sessions cannot provide.
Such unforgettable occasions can act as the catalyst for change.
Tackling inequalities in the community
The RFL’s schemes are having a dramatic impact on boosting inactivity levels in lower socio-economic groups – a key demographic for Sport England, who have appealed for partners to reach out to this sector.
Nearly 50% of those who play rugby league are from the most economically deprived areas in the country.
‘This is one of the reasons why our grass-roots funding from Sport England was one of the larger ones proportionally for team sports, because we excel at providing fantastic opportunities for people from lower socio-economic groups,’ explains Sarah-Jane.
‘And my target is to increase that, so as my overall number of participants increases, so does that proportion, because those from deprived backgrounds are much less likely to be involved in resilience-building team sport and much less likely to have good mental and physical health outcomes.’
The RFL are committed to a range of new interventions that support inclusion in other under-represented areas too, such as introducing more females to sport and physical activity – with women currently representing just 4% of rugby league’s playing base.
‘A new girls’ talent pathway, the moving of the England women’s team into the same performance unit as the men and the inaugural Women’s Super League competition which we launched last year has started to address that,’ says Sarah-Jane.
Strong family bond
There are elements associated with rugby league that set it apart from other sports and which can be used to positively influence the push to get more people involved in the game.
Much is made of the ‘rugby league family’. The term has grown in popularity after multiple examples of rugby league’s rare ability to pull together for the good of the sport, but equally its ability at rallying round during adverse situations – echoing the ‘sport-person’ twin objective of the RFL’s recruitment projects.
This can perhaps be best summed up by the incredible tributes and club fundraising efforts that followed the tragic death of Keighley Cougars player Danny Jones during a league match in 2015.
Rugby league fans rallied behind Danny’s wife Lizzie, with The Rugby Football League Benevolent Fund starting a collection within hours of his death which was used to set up a trust fund for the couple’s five-month-old twins. This had risen to nearly £250,000 when, just a few months after his fatal heart attack, professional singer Lizzie performed the traditional pre-match hymn of Abide With Me at Wembley before the Challenge Cup final.
There wasn’t a dry eye amongst the 70,000 fans watching in the stadium, and no doubt the poignancy of the performance met with the same glassy-eyed response in the homes of the millions watching on TV.
Similarly, when The Sun’s rugby league reporter, Gary Carter, lay in hospital in an induced coma after being seriously injured in an unprovoked assault, the rugby league community, including professional and amateur clubs, players and the RFL sprang into action.
England players sported ‘Keep Fighting Gaz’ T-shirts ahead of an international friendly with New Zealand, while the considerable support offered to Gary and wife Gemma by the RFL was notable for the fact that Gary is not even an employee of the organisation.
No matter, the rugby league family look after their own.
‘We use the phrase a lot and we are rightly proud of it,’ says Sarah-Jane. ‘I think it means different things to different people.
‘For me in development it really does mean we have a pathway that remains open from five until open age; that we respect the fact that performance rugby league has to work with the participation team and vice versa. That for me is a manifestation of the rugby league family – that I work with performance colleagues hand in glove.
‘For other people it means that the fan base is very mixed. Forty-plus per cent of our fans in the stadium are women – a gender split that most sports would love to have. And that creates that sense of a rugby league family.
‘For others it will be the fact we have got really powerful rugby league charities; so whether that’s our own, Rugby League Cares, or the RFL Benevolent Fund or it’s the Rugby League Foundations themselves coming to the aid of the sport or to individuals.
‘It’s about making a virtue of the fact we are a relatively small sport punching above our weight in so many different ways.’
Gold blend: The importance of partnerships
While its playing base may be small compared to the rival 15-man code, football and cricket, league commands a healthy slice of the television audience.
Retaining high viewing figures is crucial for the long-term future of the game. Fortunately, the thrills and spills of Super League mean the sport continues to be a big draw in that particular branch of the media, with broadcast partners Sky signing a new five-year contract with the RFL (taking effect from the start of the 2017 season) that will extend their relationship to 30 years.
That means more money into the governing body’s coffers to add to the £7m grass-roots funding and £3.75m talent allocation that is part of Sport England’s latest 2017-21 funding cycle settlement.
‘The Sky deal is important in lots and lots of ways,’ says Sarah-Jane. ‘It shows, for example, that they value the corporate social responsibility element of their relationship with the sport as much as their broadcast contract and what that means in terms of TV viewers and reach.
‘A partnership decision was made that a proportion of that funding for the sport as a whole would be spent on developing the players, fans and the future because it is in everybody’s interests that that happens.’
Sarah-Jane used to work with British Cycling, where she saw first-hand the enormous impact of having a famous corporate sponsor.
Having Sky’s brand name attached to the Sky Go campaign helped generate exposure and significantly raise the public profile of the programme, ultimately leading to more people getting on their bikes.
She explains: ‘Brilliant delivery happens across the sport of rugby league but what our partnership with Sky does on the Sky Try programme is it gives us that wraparound campaign, where we are able to use the power of the Sky brand – that is associated with high quality delivery and great experiences – and blend it neatly with our own vision and intended outcomes. It gives us that extra dimension, adding to our reach while giving us that consistency of delivery.
‘So when we take scores of kids onto the pitch at Magic Weekend as part of the Sky Try campaign it absolutely fits – a high quality rugby league experience with a high quality broadcast partner.’
Sarah-Jane’s use of the phrase ‘blend it neatly’ epitomises the way the RFL operates and is a recurring theme of their development model.
Not only have they formed formidable double acts with their partners (Sky, Sport England, the Rugby League Foundations), the outcomes of these partnerships are themselves often twofold – dual purpose initiatives where growing participation is paramount but by no means the only objective it succeeds in achieving.