Super League's Magic Weekend continues to grow in popularity

 

I've spent time this week talking to players, fans, Rugby Football League and club officials and struggled to find many negative words about Super League's 'Magic Weekend'.

Not that I was hoping to of course. As a fan, it is an event I love - and it is exactly the kind of unique occasion that is crucial to selling our sport to a wider audience.

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Had Man City and Man Utd had more successful European seasons, rugby league could have been descending on a deserted city

In basic terms it creates the feeling of a 'third final' alongside the Grand Final and Challenge Cup. Obviously no trophies are won over the two days. But it gives players, staff, loyal and new fans the opportunity to sample the big occasion and everything that surrounds it.

I also thought the move to Manchester City's Etihad Stadium last year produced the best ever Magic Weekend in terms of entertainment and exposure.

The RFL was sufficiently pleased with record attendance figures to keep Magic at the Etihad until 2014. Officials at the stadium say that last year's event produced record refreshment sales for any event it has ever hosted.

I'm not sure what that says about the average league fan, but fresh stocks of booze had to be ordered in on the Saturday night and nearby supermarkets were stripped.

There are still critics of the concept; there always are. Many fans don't stick around beyond their own team's game and even hardened neutrals struggle to take in all seven - I've not yet sat through a full fixture list at a Magic Weekend.

Most of the player gripes used to centre on the unnecessary travelling, but that has obviously softened with the move to the north west. Logistical problems such as use of dressing rooms create headaches because four are needed at once. There are two excellent changing rooms at the Etihad but the others are smaller. Warrington were so unhappy with their facilities last year that they stayed on pitch-side for half-time like you did at school.

Magic Weekend fixtures

Saturday 25 May

1200 BST: Catalan Dragons v London Broncos

1415: Castleford Tigers v Wakefield Trinity Wildcats

1630: Hull FC v Hull Kingston Rovers

1845: St Helens v Warrington Wolves

Sunday 26 May

1500: Salford City Reds v Widnes Vikings

1715: Bradford Bulls v Huddersfield Giants

1930: Leeds Rhinos v Wigan Warriors

The general feeling though is that from the hotel, to the bus, to the ground, to the facilities, the fans, and carnival atmosphere, this event offers the coaches an opportunity to prepare players for the big occasion and see how they respond.

Some may never experience Old Trafford or Wembley. And if they are fortunate enough to do so, Magic gives them a taste of what to expect. The sport's partners seem to like it too and tend to have a big presence at the stadium, which for a game still without a title sponsor for its elite league is crucial. It also offers the clubs a chance to gain income from ticket sales without incurring the costs of staging the event.

The event is here to stay, but having been born in Cardiff, moved to Edinburgh and then back to Cardiff before the Manchester migration, is the purpose of the Magic Weekend - brainchild of RFL chief executive Nigel Wood in 2007 - still the same?

The idea grew initially from the governing body's desire for expansion - to help the game grow in Wales and then Scotland. Whether it had much impact is open to debate but both Murrayfield and the Millennium Stadium were keen to keep the event, with the latter especially miffed at the relocation to Manchester.

So given we're back around the game's heartland, what is the point of the event now?

The RFL says the initial brief to expand the sport and create an extra 'big-match occasion' remains the same. In the governing body's view, staging it in Manchester simply serves to make this big away-day more accessible, with the hope that neutral sports fans in the region may see it as a something new to try over bank holiday weekend.

That of course relies on marketing, promotion and advertising but there are visible signs of that in the city too, with a giant billboard sign even confusing the shoppers at my local supermarket in south Manchester.

Etihad Stadium

Magic Weekend came to the Etihad Stadium in 2012, having been held in Cardiff and Edinburgh

It also relies on careful thought going into the timing. Saturday's games take place on the day of Wembley's Champions League final. Had Manchester City and Manchester United had more successful European seasons, the rugby league world could well have been descending on a deserted city.

This would have been as frustrating as the fruitless push for national exposure from the opening round of Super League, staged on the same February weekend as the big Six Nations rugby union kick-off.

When the Manchester contract is up in 2014, I expect at least a three-way tussle to stage Magic between the three arenas to have already sampled it, while there was also interest from Ireland before the Etihad deal was signed.

Given last year's unseasonal sun-drenched bank holiday is unlikely to be repeated, attendance figures this weekend will be fascinating, but there is no reason for the event not to go from strength to strength.