Emerald Headingley Stadium on May 7, 2021. Picture Credit: Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Can Channel 4 shake-up Super League?

The relationship between rugby league and television has never been easy. Now it’s Channel 4s turn to shake things up

Artillery Row

It was March 1976, and Britain was on the brink of change. In Westminster, shockwaves ripped through the political world when the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, handed in his resignation to the Queen. Having been at the top of the political game for so long, many wondered what life would be like without him. As Michael Palin reflected in his diary, the PM had become as secure an institution “as the Queen or Bovril”. And at that same moment, a rugby league supporter in St Helens was ready to strike out at another one of Britain’s great institutional figures. 

Rugby league’s intrinsic association with Eddie Waring inevitably came at a price

Like Harold Wilson, Eddie Waring had been on television for so long that he had become part of the very fabric of British cultural life. Emerging as the top rugby league columnist in the 1940s, Waring became the voice of sport  in the 1950s when the BBC first began to show it regularly on television. 

Redefining the art of sports commentary, Waring’s Dewsbury accent was a novelty in an era that predated Coronation Street and the kitchen sink dramas of the 1960s. His catchphrases — such as “he’s off for an early bath” and “the up and under” — soon became part of the national vocabulary. 

“Uncle Eddie’s” popularity enabled him to transcend the boundary between sport and light entertainment. He was a guest star in the iconic Morecambe and Wise Christmas shows of the 1970s, where half the population tuned in to watch. For impressionists such as Mike Yarwood, he was a reliable figure to satirise and guarantee a laugh each week. 

Closer to home, the Warrington club comic Nicky Martyn even recorded his own tribute song: “His accent’s glaring….That’s Eddie Waring!”. But it was as the commentator/referee/presenter on It’s A Knockout — which regularly drew in audiences of seventeen million — where he finally reached national treasure status. A cult figure with students, Waring appreciation societies popped up in University towns, and he was even asked to speak at the Oxford Union. As one journalist observed, he “as good as invented the game” to those who didn’t follow it. 

Rugby league’s intrinsic association with Eddie Waring inevitably came at a price. For those who wanted the game’s image to evolve, he was accused of holding it back. When, in the early 1970s, a group of management consultants studied league’s image problems, they found the audience was laughing at Waring. 

In addition to the BBC actively promoting a picture of “slag heap and drizzle”, they concluded that Waring had “little credibility as a serious interpreter of the game”. He “may well be immensely entertaining and amusing”, but the laughter was “patronizing”. 

A “remarkably stupid game” played by a “muddied lot of half-drunk idiots” 

And while It’s A Knockout was watched by millions, it was often ridiculed for its low-brow slapstick approach to sport. The Daily Telegraph took particular offence to it as a “parody of a programme, which uses the trappings of serious competition, elaborate timing and weighing equipment, earnest referees to judge utterly witless and pointless activities”.

Critics began to wonder where the boundaries between rugby league and It’s a Knock Out were drawn. So, as Britain changed Prime Minister’s, one rugby league supporter decided that enough was enough. St Helens fan Michael Hevey launched a petition to express supporters dismay at “the manner in which rugby league is abused, exploited and misrepresented by the BBC”. Acquiring over 10,000 signatures, he aimed his anger at Waring, who was accused of turning the sport into a “music hall joke”. Hevey sensed that Southerners must think “we go around wearing cloth caps and muffers” — an image problem which was holding the game back.

The Waring debate often showed up in the most unusual places. One night, on the Parkinson chat show, a discussion between Michael Parkinson, Peter Cook and Danny Blanchflower turned on to their favourite sports. Cook, renowned for his “anti-establishment” approach to comedy, launched into a tirade about his hatred for rugby league, which he found to be a “remarkably stupid game” played by a “muddied lot of half-drunk idiots”. 

This was despite his love for Eddie Waring, who he greatly “worshipped and admired”. Parkinson put it down to Cook’s public school education. But in reality, the view that Waring was more popular than the sport was ingrained at the BBC. One of Waring’s defenders in the Daily Mail claimed that the BBC had a simple attitude: “No Eddie Waring, no new TV contract”.

The BBC protected Waring until he decided it was time to hang up the microphone. In 1981, over a decade after he was first identified as the problem, he finally stepped down. The Times ran his retirement story on their front page while the Guardian TV critic Nancy Banks-Smith announced that she would miss him greatly. “He brought warmth if not light to the ancient ritual of rugby league”.

But in rugby league circles, the retirement was greeted with enthusiasm. The Rugby Leaguer newspaper called for a radical change in approach: “It’s not It’s a Knockout with an oval ball. It’s a professional sport with a long and colourful heritage, a fast and skilful game played by men who train hard and play hard, men with a fierce pride in their sport”. 

In many ways, Waring’s replacement, Ray French, was a radical departure from the past. French had not only played both rugby league and rugby union, he’d studied English and had carved out a life for himself as a St Helens schoolteacher. The Guardian dubbed him “a smooth-talking English graduate and accomplished after-dinner speaker” while the Daily Mail admitted that “there couldn’t be a greater difference in style between him and Eddie Waring if Les Dawson were invited to take over the Chair in English at Oxford”.

Crucially, French arrived on the scene just in time to narrate the 1982 Kangaroos tour, which radically altered perceptions about how the sport could be played. A few years later, he was the lead commentator when millions of people across the globe tuned in to watch the 1985 Challenge Cup Final between Wigan and Hull. 

As the sport began to change its image, the “credible” Middle England Grandstand presenters such as Steve Ryder and Des Lynam were drafted in. And as the sport pioneered new professional standards in Britain, discussion moved away from the “slag heap and drizzle” onto the toughness, speed and stamina. It’s impossible to imagine Eddie Waring selling the exploits of Ellery Hanley, Jonathan Davies and Martin Offiah as effectively as rugby league did in the 1980s. 

Their ability to maintain drama and suspense was as crucial to the spectacle as the actual tries themselves

As the sport moved into the realms of entertainment, new voices, such as ITV’s Clive Tyldesley, took coverage of the sport onto the next level. But it was the emergence of BSKYB in 1990 that finally gave rugby league the platform it had long agitated for. 

Dramatically repacked as The Big League, the sport adopted aggressive promotional marketing techniques and quickly made the Friday night TV slot its own. With innovative producer Neville Smith at the helm, Sky changed the way cameras were used so that the broadcaster — through action replays and video referees — was part of the spectacle. Even the intro music projected a sense of modernisation. The high octane rave track — Carpe Diem by Edrenalin — that became their anthem, was a signal that you were more likely to find rugby league players at the Hacienda than at the local working men’s club.

The commentary team were also a revelation. Eddie Hemmings, who had impressed supporters with his radio commentary for BBC Radio 2, was brought together with the self-styled “bad boy” Mike “Stevo” Stephenson. Stevo, in particular, gained notoriety for his “rants”, which were purposely crafted to create talking points in the game. Long before the age of social media, he was offering up Gary Neville-style hot takes, which, in another era, would have made him a viral star. 

More importantly, when the Super League arrived in 1996, the pair took it upon themselves to sell the sport as “the greatest game in the world”, in the knowledge that they were competing against Coronation Street and EastEnders each week. Anyone in any doubt about their importance to the action, only needs to listen back to the “Wigan have pinched it” or “Wide to West” tries that came within a matter of weeks of each other in 2000. Their ability to maintain drama and suspense was as crucial to the spectacle as the actual tries themselves.  

The opportunities to cut through are bigger than ever

Even the most ardent defender of Sky Sports would acknowledge that the coverage has lost some of that early dynamism. A growing discontent at the standards of commentary has mirrored a broader feeling of “managed decline” within the game since the 2008 financial crash. A loss of confidence in the sport’s identity has resulted in strategic moves on sponsorship, governance, structure, and expansion to try and shake up the sport. Most have failed. 

But the one aspect that remained unchallenged was the broadcast partner. It is a remarkable statistic, but in the 26 years of  Super League, not a single minute of play was shown — live — on free to air television. That all changed on Saturday when Channel 4 broadcast Leeds and Warrington from Headingley.  

Rarely has an individual league fixture been as anticipated or as unifying in bringing together the various components of the sport. In a tribal game full of competing ideas about where the future lies, supporters of different clubs got behind the venture. Channel 4 cleverly indulged the game’s past in a promotional video that also served as a call to arms to take the game forward.

It meant that by the time the game kicked off, there were hundreds of thousands of supporters willing them to succeed. Many feared a potential blowout when Leeds had a man sent off after just fifteen minutes. But the players delivered, and many supporters admitted that they hadn’t been as emotionally invested in a game for decades. 

It’s still uncertain whether it was the presenters, the timing (Saturday morning with the weekend still to come), or the originality of content that allowed Channel 4 to create a feel-good factor that’s been lacking from the sport in recent years. It’s a testament to Channel 4’s decision to select two high profile presenters — Adam Hills and Helen Skelton — to present the coverage. The pair not only have deep roots in the game, their reach will allow them to communicate beyond league’s natural boundaries. Furthermore, the appointment of commentator Mark Wilson — who has done the hard graft in the lower league’s and women’s game in recent years — is a signal that they are in tune with supporters’ demands for new and enthusiastic voices.   

Sky Sports too, appear to have upped their game in response to the competition. In addition to the recruitment of two new pundits, they have clearly worked on their social media presence. So far this week, we have already seen Sky’s main presenter, Brian Carney, comment on three news stories to set the week’s agenda. 

With both Sky Sports and Channel 4 having a stake in the growth of the game, the opportunities to cut through are bigger than ever. The potential for a crossover with hit C4 shows such as The Last Leg, Sunday Brunch, Gogglebox, First Dates, and Countdown may well be the most significant opportunity of all. The cynics would suggest that rugby league has been here before. And no doubt, the initial momentum will fade away. But there is an appetite for change. The initial viewing figures — a record peak audience of 755,000 — show that rugby league has a solid foundation. The task now is for the game, the broadcasters and the supporters to go out and make the most of it. 

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