A league of their own 

2 January 2002 tbs.pm/1789

Although mainly confined to the north of England, rugby league is one of the oldest television sports, with a history that dates back over half a century.

Along the way, it has seen many memorable moments, perhaps most notably Don Fox’s last-minute penalty miss for Wakefield Trinity in the infamous 1968 Challenge cup final.

Television has also given the sport a national exposure that it would otherwise lack, and even today the Challenge Cup remains an important part of the BBC’s live sporting calendar. Yet for a sport that can clearly benefit from a wider audience, rugby league has on occasions sought to keep the sport off TV.

This attitude is perhaps all the more surprising as Lord Derby, later the chairman of TWW, became the Rugby Football League’s life president in 1948 and took a deep interest in the game.

Two of Derby’s forward-thinking suggestions were to move the Challenge Cup final to before the FA Cup one, as well as advocating a two division set-up to replace the then unwieldy single division of 30 clubs.

The first time that rugby league was shown on British television was on 10 November 1951 when the BBC broadcast the Second Test between Great Britain and New Zealand from Swinton’s now-demolished Station Road ground. A last-minute penalty saw the home side triumph by 20-19, and the BBC quickly decided that it wanted more of the same.

Accordingly, the first league match was shown two months later when BBC cameras were present at Central Park for the clash between Wigan and Wakefield Trinity on 12 January 1952. That year also saw the first televising of the Challenge Cup final, in which Workington Town defeated Featherstone Rovers.

That was the only final to be televised for the next six years, due to the Rugby League’s fear of the impact television would have on attendances. This was a very real fear at the time, and the RFL wasn’t alone – the Football League backed off from live coverage after a goalless draw had been shown by ITV on a Saturday evening in September 1960.

The RFL was clearly worried that televising the Challenge Cup final would have an adverse effect on the attendance, which is made up of far more neutral fans than the FA Cup final. However, the fact that, at 72,093, the attendance for the 1952 final was down by over 18,000 from the previous year was probably due more to the populations of Workington and Featherstone being far less than those of the previous year’s finalists, Wigan and Barrow.

This wasn’t the line taken by RFL secretary Bill Fallowfield who persuaded the RFL council not to agree to a repeat performance the following year. Fallowfield also had some harsh criticisms for the amount the BBC was offering for the television rights, as well as commentator Eddie Waring.

Waring, a former journalist who had previously managed Dewsbury to the League Championship during World War II was unpopular due to his knockabout approach. But for many outside the game’s traditional heartland, this probably provided added interest in what was still a largely unknown sport.

Although the RFL was unhappy about the televising of the Challenge Cup final, the BBC were still able to show other matches. However, Fallowfield wouldn’t have been impressed by the impact on attendances that some of these had. Neither did the compensation received make up for the shortfalls at the turnstiles – in 1955 the BBC offered £350 to cover the next Challenge Cup final, or £480 for three years.

In his Official History of Rugby League, Geoffrey Moorhouse notes the drop in attendances when matches were televised. An England vs. France international in November 1953 saw the total attendances for the league programme drop by 50%, while the coverage of the 1954 World Cup Final between Great Britain and France saw them down by over a third.

September 1955 saw, of course, the launch of ITV and perhaps surprisingly, the new channel was quick to add rugby league to its line-up.

The launch of Granada and ABC from the Winter Hill transmitter was still six months away when London weekday contractor Associated-Rediffusion broadcast a knockout competition played under floodlights on various London football grounds, a tournament won by Warrington, who defeated Leigh 43-18 at Loftus Road. However, rugby league was merely one part of what Geoffrey Moorhouse calls a “ragbag of outside entertainments” being tried out by the new channel, which paid the participating clubs £400 for their troubles.

The sport’s attitude towards television cannot have been helped by the effect that the televising by the BBC of the Third Test between Great Britain and Australia in 1959. Apart from hitting the attendance at the match itself, which was 20,000 lower than Central Park’s capacity and the lowest of the series, there was an even more dramatic effect on the rest of the day’s fixtures, with Leeds, York and Bramley all attracting their lowest post-war attendances. For this, the RFL received just £1250, which was less than half the gate money lost from the Test Match alone.

Given this, it is hardly surprising that many clubs were antagonistic towards television. In 1966, Wigan actually locked the cameras out of its ground and were fined £500 by the RFL. Before the decade was out, sixteen clubs (more than half of the professional teams) resorted to legal means in an attempt to get television banned from the sport, even though by that time the value of the television rights had soared to £200,000 over a three-year period.

Apart from this financial involvement, the BBC was also following A-R’s lead with the launch of its own floodlit competition, which usually took place on Tuesday nights. However, this was a more long-term involvement, with all clubs who had permanent floodlighting eligible to take part.

First staged in 1965, the BBC-2 Floodlit Trophy is notable for being the only trophy ever won by perennial strugglers Bramley, as well as a major rule change that was introduced into the 1966-67 competition.

Although they had been some changes since the Northern Union split from the RFU back in 1895 – most notably the reduction to thirteen-a-side and the abolition of the lineout – the introduction of the four-tackles-then-a-scrum rule made the differences between the codes all the more apparent.

First introduced in the floodlit competition in October 1966, the new rule was implemented in all competitions in December, before being replaced by the six-tackle rule in 1972.

Despite disagreements over shirt sponsorship in the early 1970s, rugby league remained a mainstay of BBC Television during the 1970s and 1980s, although the commitment to the Floodlit Trophy decreased before financial cutbacks at the BBC lead to its cancellation after the 1979-80 competition.

Although not as high profile as the BBC’s Five Nations rugby union coverage, rugby league continued to be a regular Grandstand staple, with coverage from the Challenge Cup and Regal Trophy, as well as Test Matches.

Former Welsh union star Jonathan Davies’ dramatic corner try against Australia at Wembley in 1994 even made the programmes credits for a time.

But given the game’s financial state, it is not surprising that rugby league was one of the sports acquired by British Satellite Broadcasting when it launched in March 1990.

When BSB’s Sports Channel was transformed into Sky Sports in the spring of the following year, it gave Rupert Murdoch access to the British game for the first time. But for Murdoch, that would not be enough.

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