Yesou don’t even have to step into Wembley to understand rugby league’s long and storied history with the national stadium. A statue immortalizing five of the game’s greatest players – Eric Ashton, Billy Boston, Martin Offiah, Alex Murphy and Gus Risman – sits outside the field but, in an ever-changing sporting landscape, history alone is not enough to secure a long-term future.
Never was that more evident for the game than on Saturday, when the Challenge Cup final took place in a new environment across the capital at Tottenham. For some traditionalists, taking the Cup final away from Wembley is an act of sin, tantamount to rugby league turning its back on a history and legacy of which the game is fiercely proud. But as Liam Farrell and Thomas Leuluai lifted the cup for Wigan, it was hard not to think of an alternative, post-Wembley world for rugby league.
After the Rugby Football League was forced to switch for the final this year due to a clash with the EFL playoffs, early rumors of Tottenham as hosts are promising. The Guardian have been told the Premier League club are exceptional to work with on all levels in terms of hosting the event and have left the door ajar for a return at some point, despite having already been confirmed that the final will return to Wembley. year.
But for more than one reason, Wembley is not the be-all and end-all of rugby league as it was a generation or so ago. Crowds have dwindled at the National Stadium for a few years, with the last crowd over 70,000 in 2016. This was also the last year Club Wembley’s total of around 10,000 was automatically included in the figure for attendance, so since returning to Wembley in 2007 attendance numbers have always been somewhat skewed.
Rugby league’s biggest priority has always been to keep the cup final, the most important day on the calendar, in London. The Challenge Cup Final belongs in the capital, allowing fans to come down from the north and have a great day every year, no matter who they support. But unlike 20 or 30 years ago, there are now options for the RFL to consider long-term, as the show at Tottenham on Saturday highlighted.
Wembley is far from the only state-of-the-art venue in London capable of hosting a major final and, given the crowd figures, a venue like Tottenham is actually a better choice. Add to that the Emirates Stadium, which will host a World Cup semi-final this autumn, and you have venues that are not only more suited to a cup final, but arguably even more exciting and attractive to visit than Wembley. .
The belief that there is life outside of Wembley is also reflected in the World Cup schedule this year. Previously, a home World Cup in England without a Wembley match would have been unthinkable. The 2013 event staged the double semi-final there and in the 1995 version the old Wembley hosted the final, but this year the venue was overlooked. The London option is, as mentioned, the Emirates Stadium for the men’s semi-finals, with the final at Old Trafford.
A crowd of nearly 52,000 on Saturday would have also appeared sparse at Wembley, and with a cost of living crisis almost certainly being felt harder in the demographics of rugby league north. With events such as Magic Weekend at Newcastle and the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford now on the calendar, filling a venue as big as Wembley isn’t as easy as it used to be.
With all of these financial factors for fans to consider, there’s no shame in rugby league choosing a stadium slightly smaller than Wembley and aiming to fill it.
Creating a situation where demand exceeds supply could also have a positive ripple effect, and the fact that tickets are extremely affordable for the World Cup this year – adults can watch the semi-final at the Emirates Stadium for as little as £20 – could set the tone for a Challenge Cup price change, with ticket prices for Saturday’s final as high as £70.
It is important to note that in the short term, nothing will change too much; the sport has an agreement with Wembley that will ensure the final is held there until at least 2027. But that’s only five years away and occasions like Saturday could only increase the appetite to ponder what what a revised future for one of the biggest events in the sporting calendar looks like.
Unlike before, when Wembley was the holy grail of rugby league, there are factors both inside and outside the game that suggest change is no longer unthinkable.
As the sun sets on a very pleasant weekend in new surroundings, it may be time for rugby league to reinvent its relationship with Wembley once and for all.