Peter Smith’s Inside Rugby League: ‘Store-loyal customers’ should not be mistaken for supporters

Dedicated Wakefield Trinity fans. PIC: Tony Johnson
Dedicated Wakefield Trinity fans. PIC: Tony Johnson

PEOPLE TALK about rugby league as a business and clubs as “brands”.

Wigan’s recent two-game tour to Australia was about increasing business opportunities and sponsorships and “brand development”.

Volunteer, Graham Teal.

Volunteer, Graham Teal.

Teams now wear a multitude of different strips throughout the course of a single season: home, away, Magic Weekend, Super-8s and more.

The big money comes not from ordinary fans paying through the turnstiles, but via corporate backers and sponsors who are willing to shell out for reserved car parking, central seats and pre- and post-match hospitality.

That’s just the way modern sport is and some other codes have been much more affected.

At least, even now, rugby league remains basically affordable and generally if someone wants a ticket for a game, it will be obtainable.

Wakefield Trinity's Mobile Rocket Stadium. PIC: Tony Johnson

Wakefield Trinity's Mobile Rocket Stadium. PIC: Tony Johnson

But, by its very nature, rugby league, particularly in the north of England, has always been at the heart of its community.

Mention Castleford or Featherstone to anyone outside the sport’s traditional areas and they will be aware of those towns because of their rugby league club.

The transition from a community sport to big business puts that at risk, but clearly supporter loyalty still exists.

Wakefield Trinity are an example of that. Belle Vue may now be known as Mobile Rocket Stadium, but last weekend fans turned out with their wellies and shovels to answer a club appeal for help clearing the pitch and terraces of snow to ensure the already-delayed Betfred Super League derby against Huddersfield Giants could go ahead.

That’s where sports like rugby league differ from business. Trinity already rely on the support of enthusiastic volunteers, for example Graham Teal. He is a familiar sight at home games and throughout the week, helping out with whatever’s needed and for years has kept members of the media happy by supplying sweets to munch on during matches.

Lacking the off-field resources of some of their rivals, Trinity rely on people like Graham and numerous others. If and when the new stadium happens and Trinity become a bigger concern, maybe the club will become more “professional”, but it would be a shame if the volunteer ethos – which is the lifeblood of the club – is lost.

It is hard to imagine hundreds of people turning up to clear snow from the car park of a major supermarket or DIY superstore. Fans may be customers, but they are also something more. They are part of the club they support. Anybody can switch their choice of store, but real fans are stuck with their club for better or worse.

Trinity lost out when the game against Huddersfield, scheduled for Friday night, was called off. It was due to be televised by Sky Sports, which would have meant a £15,000 payment, but the ground wasn’t safe and conditions, for players and supporters, would have been appalling, so it was postponed.

Though the RFL supplied the heater used to thaw out the pitch, the delay cost Trinity around £20,000. The hard work was worth it when the game was given the go-ahead on Sunday afternoon and Trinity repaid the effort put in with a 22-4 win. That was their fourth successive victory and they remain second in the table, behind the only other unbeaten club – St Helens – on points difference. It is the first time Trinity have won their opening four games of a top-flight season since 1945. The last time they did it in any competition was 28 years ago.

The only cloud was the attendance, just 4,055. Obviously the bad weather deterred some spectators and Giants do not have a big away support, but that is still disappointing for a team in such good form. That is no criticism of Trinity’s fans. The hard core who have stuck with them in the 19 years since they entered Super League – during which the bad times have out-numbered the good by about 10 to one – deserve every moment of the current success.

But years of under-achievement have cost Trinity thousands of followers and once they’ve gone it’s hard to get them back. Hopefully that will change over the coming months, because the current Trinity team and club deserve more support.