The reaction amongst the fan base to the partnership announced on Tuesday (26th July) under which the London Broncos will play as Harlequins Rugby League Club from February 2006 has been predictably mixed and, as always in sport, aroused strong emotions. Now that the media storm is settling a little, it might be helpful to clarify some of the reasons behind such a move from the NEC Harlequins perspective.
Above all this is an opportunity to grow the name and the size of a famous rugby name by partnering with another rugby code. Historically, the antipathy between union and league has been significant. I'm well aware of the resentment felt in many league quarters towards the union game over the years. The actions of the Vichy government in France in the forties when they all but destroyed the thirteen man code are particularly indefensible. I can still recall the ridiculous situation in South Wales in the seventies when some of my boyhood heroes, such as Dai Watkins, were not allowed to coach or even have a beer in a union clubhouse after they returned from rugby league.
Thankfully things have changed a great deal and there are now two fully professional codes of rugby in England, with a good deal of exchange of ideas and good practice on playing and commercial matters. I don't believe the two codes will ever merge to form one game because they are too different in terms of the skill sets involved and too popular in their respective heartlands. Nevertheless, no two sports are so well suited to operate out of the same venue. So many of the back office functions are the same and there is the added bonus of the limited overlap of the two seasons (unlike grounds where soccer and rugby union co-habit).
The most contentious element of the partnership was always going to be the use of one name and set of colours. This change will be most heartfelt amongst Broncos supporters, who will see their colours retired at the end of this season. These types of changes are always difficult to take but are not uncommon in the early years of any sports organisation. Going way back, Harlequins were originally Hampstead FC and played at 14 grounds before finally securing the Stoop in 1963.
Rugby league in London has had a chequered history and often struggled financially. In my opinion part of the problem has been that they have always played either at football grounds or other venues where their colours, logo and name were absent entirely or given a token presence. In such circumstances it is mighty difficult to grow a regular fan base. Supporters need to feel that they belong. From my own experience at Vicarage Road a few years ago, Saracens had to work incredibly hard to make the stadium feel as if it was their own.
That will not be the case at the Twickenham Stoop. The ground belongs to Harlequins, the whole feel and look is geared towards Harlequins and only Harlequins rugby teams will play there on a regular basis. In such circumstances I feel there is a good, albeit not guaranteed, chance that professional rugby league in London will become a viable proposition. If it does, then NEC Harlequins will benefit significantly in the medium to long run.
Some NEC Harlequins fans will express concerns over the licensing of the Harlequins brand to another sport. In their eyes Harlequins is, and should only ever be, associated with rugby union. This is a perfectly reasonable point of view but not one that I, nor the board of the club, share. Of course there is a risk of reputational damage if the dual code concept does not capture the imagination of enough people in South West London. No professional rugby team can survive in the long run without a significant fan base. Investors will put money in for a time, but not indefinitely.
However, the possible upsides are exciting. Within a few years I think it is perfectly possible that we may see a Harlequins team competing at the very top of both the Guinness Premiership and the engage Super League. Both codes will operate completely independently financially, but there are immediate cost savings for both partners and opportunities for joint promotions and commercial deals.
NEC Harlequins have agreed to invest their ground, brand, logo and colours for a fixed period of time and not to saddle the rugby league operation with crippling high rents. So far as revenues are concerned, they will be able to take full value of the revenues their activities create. This will be the first time for many years that rugby league in London has a chance to operate on a normal commercial basis. What will not happen is that one side will subsidise the other financially. Our primary focus at NEC Harlequins will remain on securing our return to the Premiership at the first time of asking.
Of course there are supporters on both sides who will not have any interest in sampling the "other game." That is fine and they will carry on with their fervent and committed support of one code or the other. But there are some who will come to a few games as general sports fans and others who will come to 30 games a year and follow both Harlequins teams avidly. It's about providing a choice and not allowing ourselves to be hamstrung by the past. Things change and new opportunities present themselves.
On the other announcement made on Tuesday about the renaming of the ground to the Twickenham Stoop, it is worth pointing out that this is not related to the rugby league venture. There were two main reasons for this change. Firstly we have, as you know, made huge changes to the culture and the feel of the club over the past few years - making great efforts to become more accessible, more family orientated and more community based. Therefore, without wanting to ditch our heritage, we felt the amended name more accurately reflected the club as it now is.
Secondly, hard though this may be for the Quins faithful to believe, a piece of market research that we commissioned showed a very low level of awareness amongst people in the region as to exactly where the Stoop was located. The same research showed a very high recognition of the Harlequins name, pretty high recognition of the Stoop as the ground where we played, but a real lack of awareness of where the Stoop was actually located.
Indeed, a sizeable number were not even sure it was in the London area. Adding Twickenham to the name can only help reduce this level of confusion. Although I'm sure most regulars will simply go on referring to it as 'The Stoop,' it will help in our written communications with potential new spectators and more infrequent visitors.
So having said all that, I am really looking forward to the start of the new season and the opening of the Lexus stand on Saturday 17th September as well as the unveiling of the Nick Duncombe Memorial sculpture on the same day. See you there.
During week commencing 22nd April Harlequins will launch an innovative, new Membership Scheme which will replace the existing Season Ticket Holder Programme. Further details of the scheme will be announced in due course.