NCA chairman John Inverdale sets sights on long-term strategy for National Leagues
John Inverdale does not try to hide his passion for the National Leagues.
“Fundamentally, if you go to watch a National League One game, you’ve got to be a very hard-to-please individual to not leave and think ‘I’m really glad I went to that, I really enjoyed it’,” he says.
His enthusiasm for the National Clubs Association should hardly be a surprise as his involvement with the divisions has spanned 35 years, much of it with Esher.
There is one difference now though, as the famous broadcaster is the focal point for the 48 clubs that make up National Leagues One, 2N and 2S, having taken over as NCA chairman in June.
It is a position that some may feel is a thankless one, given the predicament so many sports are in because of the pandemic.
But while the issues have been heightened by the here and now, they have been building for a number of years in rugby union and the current situation has almost offered a chance for a re-set.
As one part of an 11-person executive committee, Inverdale talks with both a sense of care – to look after the game at the National League level – and sincerity, to not just treasure the ‘brand’ but build on what already exists.
It was probably a full inbox when Inverdale took the reins from long-serving predecessor Norman Robertson, but 2020 was not the cause of the dilemmas.
“I just think that the game has got issues at the moment from top to bottom, from the international game which is where the game is based fundamentally in terms of public interest,” he says.
But that places the burden on increasing local knowledge of what is available on the doorstep, putting the emphasis on clubs to broaden their reach.
“When, on a Saturday, England against Scotland gets 10m viewers and the following weekend is a blank weekend in the Six Nations, how many of those people think ‘I would like to go and watch a game of rugby for real this weekend, I wonder if my local club is any good?’,” says Inverdale.
“Or, ahead of that, how many of them think ‘I know that my club down the road plays a good level of rugby, why don’t I go and watch them?’.
“I think that is the single biggest issue rugby at this level has faced in the past and the pandemic is almost irrelevant in the context of actually confronting that issue.
“It was an issue before, and when we get back to normal, whenever that will be, that is still the issue.”
Identifying the problem is one thing, overcoming it is another.
In his more than three decades at the National League level, Inverdale has seen it all – good and bad.
And he believes that unravelling it will require addressing some of the issues that arrived with the onset of professionalism.
“A lot of people spent money on players thinking that was the nirvana but actually the shrewd ones – and there weren’t many of them – built a business model, built facilities, had a marketing structure to get people aware they were out there,” he says.
It is where the two paths cross. You can have the best product possible on the pitch, with the National Leagues particularly more free-flowing compared to higher up the pyramid, but if the infrastructure does not create an appealing or comfortable environment, will neutrals make the effort to attend?
“The facilities at a lot of our clubs in the NCA are just not good enough,” says Inverdale.
“What the Rugby Union should have done in 1995, when the game went professional, is say you can spend whatever you want on players but what you have to have are facilities that are good enough to sustain public interest and drive public support.
“There are clubs playing in National One who don’t have grandstands, floodlights, all sorts of things. To me, in this day and age, that’s not good enough.
“If the sport at this level is going to get the respect it deserves, that is one aspect that just has to be addressed – we cannot allow it to just drift on indefinitely.”
If you take football, as the best example, there are ground-grading requirements that clubs must attain to reach certain levels of the pyramid.
The same rules do not exist in National League rugby, and you can understand why that may be the most pressing of issues facing the NCA.
If you broaden your reach and awareness but the ‘offer’ off the pitch does not match the play on it, what would encourage people to make a return visit?
“There has to be something more coherent to it in terms of a long-term strategy and that’s what maybe, over the next couple of years, we can try to instil into the game from Tynedale in the north to Redruth in the south,” says Inverdale.
“The great thing about National League rugby, it’s almost like a bank, there is a branch just about everywhere.
“You must have individuality, but if we can get everybody to understand that, as a collective, we would all benefit from clubs at National One and National Two all striving to provide better facilities, better amenities for everybody concerned – players, spectators, sponsors – then we would all be beneficiaries in the end.”
Attracting people to watch the game is one thing, but just as pressing is the need to retain those playing.
There has been a decline in numbers in the adult game across the board in recent years, and fears that the pandemic may exacerbate the issue.
With league rugby cancelled for the season from Level 3 and below, there are plans for a regionalised cup competition for NCA clubs in the new year.
It would use adapted rules, and be played according to government guidelines, and Inverdale hopes that it will help keep players engaged with the sport this campaign.
“The moment you get out of the habit of rugby being your weekly activity, it’s quite hard to get people back in again,” he says.
“I think that is a big issue at the moment for the sport as a whole, which then leads you on to another big issue of keeping rugby in the public eye.”
Amazon Prime have the main broadcast rights for the Autumn Nations Cup, although a number of matches are being shown on Channel 4.
With no ticket revenue as matches are played behind closed doors, and the unions usually using gate receipts to help fund the game, it is an almost impossible dilemma when it becomes a question of profile or money.
“The pandemic has manifestly heightened that issue,” says Inverdale.
“You can understand, in the short term, the unions taking the money because there is a huge gap that has to be filled somewhere as a consequence of what has happened over the last eight months and may well happen over the next three or four.
“But what is the long-term damage to the sport of that? Those are the things the sport will have to weigh up.”
It is a circle that seems never-ending.
The National League clubs fight for whatever attention and profile they can get – even the Championship gets very little coverage except in specialist rugby union domains – as the focus falls on the elite.
However, without the spotlight on the international sides, would that just restrict the overall coverage of the game?
“The elite end of any sport will always attract attention, and the further you go down the pecking order you get whatever slice of the cake you can,” says Inverdale.
“But I do think that if people go to a National League One rugby match – if they are so inclined, if they have rugby genes in them but that rugby gene is satisfied by watching internationals on television and they have never been to a National League rugby match – I think they would be very pleasantly surprised.
“They might be actually shocked at how good the play is and how entertaining it is.”
You sometimes wonder whether terming the National Leagues as the community game is a problem that hinders the image of the competition.
It is the official description of Levels 3 and below by the RFU – and often used by the national media for ease of grouping everything together below the Premiership and Championship – but could perhaps do a disservice to the standard.
However, when this is put to Inverdale, he believes that getting drawn into the terminology is a red herring and that most supporters simply call it the National Leagues – although he does agree that it is not a fair depiction.
“I prefer to call it the semi-professional arm of the game,” he says. “I think that gives it more credibility and more impact than just saying the community game, which can sometimes sound a bit disparaging.
“It’s a phrase that I personally don’t like using in the context of what we’re talking about here – as in clubs in the NCA.”
Something that the pandemic has done is bring together the clubs with regards to their standing in the game.
Inverdale’s introduction to the role of chairman means that conversations have been taking place in the virtual world – rather than informal, small talk on visits to grounds.
But the feeling of unity is coming through.
“I do sense within the NCA that there is a frustration about how Levels 3 and 4 are viewed in the wider sporting landscape, if it’s viewed at all,” he says.
“There is a desire to say ‘what can we do to get our product wider recognition, wider understanding and wider respect?’.
“What the pandemic has done is made people look at the bigger picture and see if all 48 clubs in the National League worked together how actually we could get greater recognition for all of us. It’s a coherent and attainable goal as well.”
Inverdale uses the analogy of the Post Office, which has branches everywhere and that everyone appreciates as a “great institution” for all it provides, when looking at what can be achieved.
“We’ve got 48 National League clubs almost dotted round the entire length and breadth of England,” he says.
“NCA clubs are not the community game, but the aspiration should be to be an integral part of the community – and I think there is a fundamental difference between those two phrases.”
It all comes back to the reach and the necessity for NCA clubs to have a product on and off the field to appeal to the widest possible community.
And, with that in mind, what comes next after enjoying a day out at a National League game.
“The caveat then comes, if you got drenched, there was nowhere to get cover, you couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee or a beer, are you going to go back in a fortnight?” adds Inverdale.
“That is the absolute telling question, and that is what I think – across the board in NCA clubs – should be our No 1 priority at the moment.”