Investment in Rugby League will help level up communities across the UK
As the Member of Parliament for Rugby, the town where William Webb Ellis first picked up the ball in 1823 and ran with it, and which gave its name to the sport, some might think I am obliged to be one of the game’s most vocal supporters. But the truth is that long before I set foot in Westminster, I have been passionate about rugby.
Although my passion began with Rugby Union, over the years I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Rugby League flourish. Both versions of the sport have long, rich and important histories and the Rugby League World Cup, which is being played at venues across England, is a reminder of the deep-rooted place sport has – not just in our culture, but in our economy.
Rugby League's history is levelling up writ large. The sport began in 1895, when northern clubs broke away from the Rugby Football Union. The northern clubs had wanted to pay their (largely working-class) players: the RFU's response was that "if men couldn't afford to play, they shouldn't play at all". It would be another 100 years before Rugby Union followed Rugby League down the route of professionalism.
We must remain conscious of our mandate and not close off routes to growth
The sport's future is bright, with live crowds of more than two million a year. Earlier this year, the Rugby Football League (RFL) and Super League Europe signed a 12-year strategic partnership with IMG, a world leader in sports and entertainment based in New York which turned UFC’s mixed martial arts into a global brand.
Growing the sport means growing the United Kingdom's economy. Sport is worth £39bn a year, with much of that coming from grassroots activity. As a lever of economic growth, it has relatively low barriers to entry. It also serves to bring communities together and foster a sense of civic pride: many of us identify closely with our local teams and consider them an important part of who we are.
In this context, I was delighted to see Bradford council’s bid for levelling up funds to help build a new showpiece venue for Rugby League: the UK’s largest permanently covered stadium, which would host major club and international matches. It would include a major RFL training centre, where international players and officials would work alongside young people from across the North. It would provide a home for a rejuvenated Bradford Bulls, the team who dominated global rugby in the early years of Super League but have since fallen on harder times. And it would provide a new high-capacity entertainment venue for a-list stars, at a time when Bradford is already planning to be the UK’s City of Culture in 2025.
Independent analysis shows the new complex would attract 1.25 million visitors a year and lead to more than £1bn of socio-economic benefits for Bradford – which is, let us remember, the UK’s sixth-biggest city, yet one which faces significant deprivation and barriers to growth.
It is also the country’s biggest levelling-up opportunity, according to a report published last year. And whether we call it levelling up or something else, we still have a mandate – and a duty – to bring jobs and opportunities to those places that need it most and trusted us to deliver.
Sport and culture are not adjuncts to “serious” life. They are an integral part of who we are and how we live; and they are not adjuncts to our “serious” economy. They are a vital component. Just as with spending on transport and infrastructure, judicious investment in sporting and cultural schemes which stimulate economic activity while delivering jobs and skills is an investment in the future.
We all know times are tough and public spending must be disciplined and purposeful. But we must remain conscious of our mandate and not close off routes to growth. Sport is more than a game – and the potential prize so much bigger and more enduring than a trophy.
Mark Pawsey, Conservative MP for Rugby.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.