Is Super League facing a 'financial abyss'?
SUPER League clubs are on the edge of "a financial abyss" with combined debts of more than £60m, according to a leading sports finance specialist.
Rob Wilson, from Sheffield Hallam University, came up with the conclusion after analysing the balance sheets of 11 of the 14 Super League teams for the BBC's Inside Out programme, which will be screened tonight.
Whilst information was not available from three clubs in the competition, Wilson believes the state of the game is in a perilous position.
Wilson said: "You have three or four teams that are doing very well, three or four teams doing poorly and a group of teams that struggle to wash their face financially.
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"The overall effect of that is that League itself will struggle for finance.
"The biggest challenge for the Super League is that there are too many teams generating insufficient turnover and generating too much cumulative debt.
"And that alarms me as someone who looks at finance in an academic environment, so using a term like rugby league is staring at the financial abyss isn't too harsh a thing to say."
In the last six months, Bradford and Salford have both teetered on the brink of bankruptcy before being saved by new investors.
Super League clubs are guaranteed an income stream in excess of £90m from the Sky TV deal but the new season will start on Friday without a main sponsor.
The Rugby Football League has issued a strong rebuttal, with director of standards and licensing Blake Solly insisting the game remains in "robust health" as clubs prepare to kick off a World Cup year.
However, BBC Inside Out presenter George Riley has spoken to some of the sport's leading figures to test the financial health of the game and whether there is any room for optimism.
Hull KR chairman Neil Hudgell issued a warning on the state of the game last year and, 12 months on, he sees little improvement.
"I think probably on the whole it's a little bit worse than it was last year," he said.
"Every year we make a loss and every year as directors we've funded that shortfall. I think it'd be very hard for us to argue otherwise than we live beyond our means."
Gary Hetherington, chief executive of Super League champions Leeds added: "The majority of clubs are working hard ... it's some of the others that have let the sport down quite frankly."
But in a game where the fans' passion for their teams is legendary and loyalty is fierce, Solly insists there are still some real success stories.
In a statement, he said: "Rugby league is about to embark on the most exciting and most important season in its history and the sport is well placed to make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead.
"Compared to every other major sport, rugby league is in very robust health. Attendances were at an all-time high in 2012, more people saw the game on TV than ever before and the RFL was able to make record levels of financial disbursements to clubs.
"We expect standards in Super League to continue to rise in 2013 when a more geographically diverse Championship will showcase the sport to new audiences whilst the Rugby League World Cup will elevate rugby league's profile to new heights.
"This year will also see more commercial income flow into rugby league than at any time in its history and with a growing stable of sponsors and partners, the sport is approaching the new season with confidence.
"The salary cap and licensing have both brought the stability that is allowing many clubs to operate profitably and helped attract the new investors who coming into Super League.
"However, no amount of central legislation can guard against some of the decision-making that takes place at local level."
THE BBC One programme will go out on air at 7.30pm tonight, just hours after the new Super League season is officially launched in Manchester.