BUsing a rugby league club in a city that already has more than 15 professional football clubs and a handful of unions seems optimistic. Betting on the worst team in the country’s professional leagues seems like madness. But, by taking a majority share of London Skolars, that’s what Australian sports management companies ARC make.

ARC has previously specialized in boxing, but with former Australian international David Shillington and one-time player Shaun Lunt on board, they are making a third attempt to expand their empire into rugby league. Steve Scanlan, who owns ARC, and Tony Feasey, who led the takeover negotiations, were part of the group that started New York City RLFC, which collapsed during the pandemic, and also wanted to bring the Jacksonville Axemen into the UK system.

Both these ventures failed, but ARC has a new plan: buy perennial League 1 strugglers London Skolars and turn them into the biggest rugby league club in the capital. The local businessmen who own the club expect the takeover to be completed in time for the team’s daunting trip to unbeaten leaders Dewsbury on Sunday.

Neither party has declared how much ARC is paying the current directors for the vast majority of their shares – the current owners own 408,671 shares, valued at £1 each – but a former director claimed it is in the low six figures. “It’s an opportunity for new investors to come in rather than the existing investors selling out and making some money,” said Skolar’s secretary, Andrew Jackson. “It’s taken a very long time to get there.”

The club is understandably cautious: The Toronto Wolfpack pledged to invest in Skolars four years ago, only to have the deal go cold when the dollar was due. And running a professional club in London is an expensive business.

The London Broncos are £26m in debt, most of which is owed to long-time owner David Hughes, the oil magnate who is plugging a financial hole of around £1m a year. After 43 years, the Broncos – currently 10th in the second division – do not own a stadium, a training ground or even an office. Nor Skolar’s.

An Australian company taking over the worst team in British professional rugby league? So what, you might ask. Well, it could be a turning point for the sport in London, which is currently at its lowest ebb in the 20 years since Skolars made the bold leap from the amateur leagues to the lowest of the RFL’s paid ranks.

ARC sounds ambitious. They want to turn Skolars into London’s premier rugby league club and they are considering the Broncos’ low-hanging fruit. It’s 15 years since the Broncos were in Super League’s top 10 and their performance last year – 11th in the Championship – was their worst since 1989. Back in January, Feasey told corporate guests at the pre-season friendly between London’s two clubs: “Broncos: we’re coming for you!”

London Skolars play London Broncos in a friendly match.
London Skolars play London Broncos in a friendly match. Photo: Matthew Childs/Action Images/Reuters

It was a bullish statement and Broncos management were apparently surprised enough to seek talks with ARC about taking them over instead – a deal that would have given ARC a Championship club likely to be rated Category B by global media company IMG next year, unlike category C Skolars in League 1.

IMG considers London to be an important marketone that the RFL has failed to capitalize on: there have only been a handful of big games in the capital since then London Broncos were relegated from the Super League four years ago, with no England game scheduled for the autumn either. The lack of collective thinking was evident when the two professional clubs’ last home games were played simultaneously, and were seen by a combined attendance of just 600 people. There is no professional match in the capital this coming weekend. A fresh attitude and new investment would be most welcome.

“Without sounding arrogant, we want the whole of London,” says Feasey, although he remains vague about the plans. Whether the ARC buys the club’s RFL license to launch a new entity in the capital remains to be seen. The investors have not ruled out changing the Skolars’ name and they have been eyeing potential new homes, including two where the Broncos have played.

In contrast to the wandering, chameleon-like Broncos, Skolars have played in red and black at the New River Stadium in Wood Green for a quarter of a century. The Skolars brand has roots: the lives of thousands of people in Haringey have been touched by a working-class, proud club with a greater BAME presence on the pitch, on the sidelines and in the stands than any other club in the country. As the club’s founder, Hector McNeil, once said: “We mirror London. We represent the city.”

The plucky Skolars side that unexpectedly pushed the Rochdale Hornets all the way at the New River Stadium last week was typical: a core of local lads from different ethnic backgrounds, a couple of northern players, two Australians now living in the capital and four on loan. Their captain Aaron Small, a lorry driver from Hackney, started playing league in a Skolars community program and has now amassed 100 professional games.

If ARC wants to grow the club, however, a move may be necessary. Watching Skolars on the communal New River can be both disheartening and comforting, a warm welcome from old friends in an otherwise desolate pub. Hailed as a potential white elephant by the local press since before it even opened in 1987, the New River is still down, invaded every fortnight by Skolar’s regulars – an incongruous mix of ex-players, friends, league junkies – and a busload of visitors. The Rugby League Yearbook reports that their average attendance was 300 last year; which must have included the players and officials.

ARC must start with marketing. Match days at New River are a commercial vacuum, with only a couple of (temporary) billboards and little to buy apart from fine New River Ale and jerk patties. Particularly absent are food stalls, beer tents, 21St century music or some of the Greek culture of nearby Bowes Park or Wood Green life. There is no indication that money is involved. But the Toronto Wolfpack showed what could be done in a tired multipurpose municipal ground, drawing attention away from the crumbling concrete and onto a winning team on the field and a hipster-packed beer village behind the sticks. ARC has an almost blank canvas to work on.

Although you might assume that the two London clubs work closely together, contrary to what is said publicly, the relationship is broken. Last year, after losing some of their best players to the Broncos, Skolars used an astonishing 40 players in just 20 league games, nine of which also appeared for the Broncos. So far this season, Skolars are yet to sign a single Broncos player on loan.

“I’m in a privileged position, having come from Skolars as a junior, played for the Broncos and now coach Skolars,” says Joe Mbu. “The collaboration must always be close and help each other. We are no longer a million miles from the Broncos level. Our aim is to win League 1, get promoted and have two Championship clubs in the south. Hopefully we live long enough to see serious derbies and a real rivalry.”

Not owning their own ground could give Skolars an opportunity to do something different – and it would save them the rumored £20,000 per game Hughes spends renting Wimbledon’s smart new ground for the Broncos – but with just one full-time employee and a handful overworked volunteers, Skolars is a club that hangs on by the tips of its fingers.

That said, ARC could probably buy success in League 1 by doubling the current playing budget of around £100,000. “The only way the club can ever do anything other than survive in League 1 is to make significant investment,” said Skolars chairman Adrian Fraine, who is expected to remain on the board. “The current shareholders do not have the resources to realize these goals. The new owners share our view that London has a lot of untapped potential.”

Bottom of League 1 having lost all nine games so far this season, the schools need new talent before considering changing names or stadiums.

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