On December 19, the news broke that Nigel Wood had left the board of #Super League Europe (SLE) - though he will continue to act as Chief Executive of the Super League body. As the Chief Executive, he will answer to the newly constituted board of directors of SLE which will now be made up of nominees from the 12 current Super League clubs. The man at the heart of the news - Nigel Wood - has attracted severe criticism in recent years, but, is this criticism warranted?
Early life and integration into Rugby League
In his early years, Nigel Wood played Rugby League for Bradford Northern and Halifax RLFC at junior levels and Huddersfield at reserve grade, together with a number of seasons playing Amateur Rugby League in the Pennine League.
His interest in the sport has never ceased and prior to joining the RFL, Wood was Chief Executive of Super League Club Halifax Blue Sox and Deputy Head of Finance for BBC North.
In 1996, Wood joined the newly-created Super League Europe as a Director and became Chief Executive. 1996 was a busy year for Wood as he also graduated from the University of Bradford with an MBA in Business Administration. Clearly then, with Wood's experience in the game at a playing and administrative level, Super League was seemingly in capable hands.
Wood has not only played a significant role in Super League for the past two decades but, he has also been at the centre of the game as a whole. For over ten years, Wood has been a Director of the RFL (the sport's governing body) and was appointed Chief Executive Officer in 2007.
During this time with Wood at the helm, the RFL and SLE have experienced an unprecedented increase in revenue from £18m to £52m and have also delivered profits in each consecutive year - no mean feat in a country which has been plagued by financial crises in recent years. Wood has also overseen record-levels of investment in and around the sport - for example, Sport England has awarded £10.75m to the RFL to help grow and sustain participation in Rugby League for the four-year period from 2017 to 2020.
The Sky Try campaign has also been a key achievement under Wood's stewardship. Sky are now - whether fans like it or not - incredibly important for the growth of the sport and Wood has quite obviously latched on to this. This Sky Try initiative has committed £2m per year until 2021 and, more importantly, it will enable more than 100,000 children to play the sport in the first 18 months of the programme and over 700,000 in the next few years. What better way to ensure the game grows than to get future generations involved?
The expansion of the international game is key to the sport's growth and Wood has acknowledged this.
In May 2014, he was elected as Chairman of the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) having worked in support of the Federation for the past ten years. This position was taken up following his role as the Tournament Director for the hugely impressive Rugby League World Cup 2013, which exposed the sport on a magnificent scale in stadiums in Wales, Ireland, England, Scotland and France and on the world stage. And, in view of the 2021 World Cup, Wood is determined to go one better than the brilliant 2013 tournament.
From this, Wood has assisted the development of the international game by working with broadcast partners to have the widest possible audience for international matches as well as Super League matches. Indeed, from just one broadcasting partner in its maiden year in 1996, Super League now has seven broadcasting partners, with Britain, France, Eastern and Central Europe, the USA and Australia all able to watch Super League sides do battle over the course of the season.
Groups within the sport
Wood obviously takes his position within the sport seriously; he is the Chairman of the Business, Finance and Grants Sub-Committee, which has overseen the implementation of a formal grants protocol for the first time in the history of the organisation. And, Wood is now the Chairman of the RFL’s #Equality And Diversity Group which is a forum established to maintain and develop the RFL’s reputation as being a leading governing body of sport for Equality and Diversity. It is necessary for sports to move with the times and with society becoming increasingly focused on racial, gender, sexual and social equality, Wood is taking steps to move the sport in line.
The Bad and the Ugly
Whilst Wood certainly has a number of achievements under his belt, he has often become the target for heavy criticism from supporters of the game. Much has been said of Wood's attempt to expand the game and the apparent lack of attention given to so-called heartland clubs that have experienced severe financial difficulty in recent years such as York City Knights and Oldham Roughyeds.
This criticism has been compounded by the apparent desire to concentrate on new, exciting clubs such as Toronto Wolfpack and Toulouse Olympique - the decision to allow Toronto and Toulouse to play at the Super League Magic Weekend is just one example of favouritism that may well hurt more 'traditional' clubs financially.
The NRL and Australia run the show
And, whilst the level of investment and revenue has grown under Wood's tenure, Rugby League in the UK is still very much behind in relation to other sports and in particular, the NRL which seems to be able to attract investment and interest on a sheer colossal scale. Money is what, effectively, makes the world go round and British Rugby League simply cannot compete with its Australian counterpart which, unfortunately, translates onto the field.
The dominance of the Kangaroos over England in the past two decades is extremely disheartening. The recent World Cup demonstrated that the English game is not that far behind, but, it is still not on a par. Investment is needed, but, the RFL needs to make the game more attractive for potential suitors - this responsibility lies at the top and Wood, as Chief Executive of the governing body, has not done enough. The fact that Super League was only able to acquire a new sponsor just a week before the new season in 2016 speaks volumes and, even more embarrassing, the deal with the Stobart Group actually yielded no cash injection into the top flight for that year.
The final nail in the coffin for many Rugby League fans was, however, the recent revelation that Wood's 2016 salary amounted to a whopping £314,000. The news whipped up a frenzy with barely any - if any at all - finding any justification for such a huge payment. And, whilst Wood's salary increased by over £100,000 in the previous year, Sport England grant money for 2017 was - as said earlier - £10.75 million. This figure may seem impressive, but, it is a 38% deduction from the previous four-year cycle.
The furore of the Rugby League fraternity has reached such a point that a petition has even been launched by one fan, aiming to somehow bring a vote of no confidence against Wood with 5,543 signatures to date. The petition features a timeline of events including a drop in attendances, funding, participation, media coverage and a general decline in the standard of the competition. In the past ten years - in which Wood has been at the very heart of the game - player participation levels have fallen from 131,900 to 44,000, while Super League's average attendance has also dropped from 9,855 to 9,134 in the same period.
Whilst Wood has overseen some positives in his various administrative roles in the game such as increased profits and record-levels of revenue, Rugby League in the UK has simply fallen behind its Australian counterpart in Wood's tenure as Chief Executive of the RFL and Chief Executive of SLE. With participation and attendances dropping, with many clubs falling by the wayside, seemingly discarded for new expansionist projects and with a lack of major sponsorship or investment under Wood's stewardship, further changes need to be made if British Rugby League is to ever reach its full potential in the sporting world.