When Hull’s two junior setups merged their youth academies in 2016, fans, commentators and the popular press were all betting that it would end in tears and recrimination.
However, the Hull Academy, which is based at Bishop Burton College, is now reaching the end of a second successful year, and with an “outstanding” rating from the RFL and the U19s reaching the playoff semi finals, it naturally leads to the question of whether this is an approach other clubs should be considering.
Academy boss Danny Wilson took plenty of stick when the move was first announced, so two years on, he is justified in allowing himself a little smugness. He pointed out that where there is more than one club in a given city, they will all be looking at the same pool of talent, and the Hull model can make a lot of sense.
The fact that rugby league has seen a steady decline in young players over recent years is another reason it is counterproductive to have Academies effectively competing against one another. Wilson told reporters that despite a strong rugby tradition, there are fewer youngsters than ever taking up the game in the Hull area. In fact, one age group has only 120 players.
Could sports betting bring a revival?
The surge in popularity that sports betting has enjoyed over the past few years, thanks to an increase in the number of online betting sites and apps, could provide the catalyst that rugby league needs to get back on the map. The linkage between the online bookmakers and grass roots support might not be obvious at first glance, but it all comes down to increased profile and media coverage. The best rugby betting sites attract thousands of visitors every day, and are also keen to offer lucrative sponsorship deals.
The higher profile that they give the sport leads to increased interest, more media investment, greater TV coverage and a virtuous circle of more people wanting to get involved in the game, both as spectators and participants, at all levels and age groups.
The phenomenon has already been seen in previously “minority interest” sports such as mixed martial arts and eSports. As online betting becomes more popular, the sites are keen to foster interest in a broader range of sports. It is good for business, good for the sports and provides a richer and more varied experience for the gambler, meaning everyone comes out a winner.
Who will follow Hull’s lead?
Leading clubs such as Wigan and Leeds already have mature academies in place, and are likely to take an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, but other clubs are certain to be eyeing the proven results at Hull with interest.
With reduced local talent pools, the focus has to be on increasing the quality of young players coming through the system, and Wilson is certain that Hull has the approach exactly right. He feels the academy can develop players such that it will provide around half of the first team contingent in years to come, leaving funds available to populate the other half with top quality imports. And that sounds like a winning formula in anyone’s book.