Newcastle Thunder chairman Mick Hogan says Newcastle can become a rugby league hotbed in the UK, ahead of Magic Weekend returning to the city, live on Sky Sports…
Speaking as a special guest on this week’s Golden Point Podcast, Hogan spoke first of his excitement at Magic’s return to the north east and St James’ Park for the first time since 2018.
“It’s absolutely fantastic,” Hogan said. “It’s become a real fixture now within the north east sporting calendar.
“I don’t think the city truly realised how important it was until it went away.
“It was there for four years between 2015 and 2018, we had to give it a rest in 2019 as we had the rugby union European Cup finals and the stadium just couldn’t host it all.
“Last year was obviously well documented that nothing really happened, and here we are back in 2021 after three years.
“It will be a welcome return and I know the city absolutely loves hosting it. It welcomes the fans, the colour, the noise, and the excitement it brings.
“The ones that will come will make it a great spectacle and it will be a fantastic weekend.”
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A one-club, football-mad city, Hogan’s aim is to carve out more rugby representation within Newcastle.
Thunder, who were known as Gateshead Thunder until 2015, were promoted to the Championship for this current season and rugby league’s second tier last year after Leigh Centurions replaced Toronto Wolfpack in Super League.
Though under no illusions as to what his sport is up against, Hogan is confident rugby league could flourish.
“What we’re getting now up here is that we like to think that we’re becoming a rugby city,” he added.
“It will always be a football city first and foremost, don’t get me wrong.
“Newcastle United, I was there myself at the weekend, they’re not having the greatest of times recently, and yet there are still 50,000 in the stadium.
“I’d call it one step off a religious cult. You’re born into it and can’t get away from it.
“And you know, every other city builds a cathedral at the highest point, they built a football stadium in Newcastle: St James’ Park.
“The bell goes out at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon and they all down tools, stop what they’re doing and walk towards it.
“Unfortunately, they usually come away again disappointed, as they did at the weekend, and vow never to go back, but by the Tuesday/Wednesday are itching for the next home game.
“We’re up against football here, but rugby in both codes is carving a niche and we’ve built it around these big events like Magic.
“These big events bring so much exposure to the sports of rugby league and rugby union, and it draws in a lot of people who wouldn’t ordinarily come into contact with the sports.
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“In the first few years when Magic Weekend was up here in Newcastle, there was over 10,000 individual ticket buyers from the region that came to the games.
“That’s really encouraging, because for all our long-term aspirations at Thunder to get into Super League and actually win it, there’s 10,000 people out here willing to buy tickets to watch rugby league, which isn’t a bad start at all is it?
“And on the back of that, you build on all the community work that we’re doing and continue to do, and you can see why we believe, long-term, Newcastle could be one of the real hotbeds for the sport.”
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A partner of rugby union’s Newcastle Falcons, Thunder were bought by the same owners in 2015 and play their games at Premiership Rugby’s Kingston Park.
Where Gateshead Thunder were thrown into Super League and failed, Thunder are going about their business in more sustainable fashion, putting resources into academy structures and community work.
Hogan is confident they will develop into key players within rugby league at the top level.
“The word ‘foundations’ hits the nail on the head,” he said.
“I’ll tell you now, our owner could probably go out and do a Toronto. He could go and buy the best players and put them in here, but if you don’t develop the off-field side of your club in tandem with what you’re trying to do on the field, there’ll be a spike, a bit of success, but there’s nothing underpinning it and it will all come tumbling down.
“We want to be here for the long-term. We’ve got a stated aim to win Super League by 2030, which is a bit bold and ambitious, but we believe we’ve got the right processes and conditions in place. And the right plans going forward.
“We’ve got a great stadium (Kingston Park), which is used for Premiership rugby union. We’ve got good administration around it, some great staff here, the academy, junior development, good training facilities.
“Next year, we will move towards full-time. We’re going to go full-time in November, with a full-time squad and a great coaching team with Dennis Betts and Eamon O’Carroll.
“We’ve got all the things in place. What we’ve got to do now is keep pushing on the crowds.
“I’ll be honest, I’ve been slightly disappointed with our crowds this year, but I think there are a lot of reasons for that.
“There was so much uncertainty, and when you look at it, we started off the season playing to no crowds behind closed doors, then we moved to small partial crowds, and now we’re at full crowds.
“The community game is the fastest-growing part of the sport of rugby league in this country. There’s been 30 to 40 per cent growth in the last five years, and what’s been amazing is, since the sport has come back from lockdown, the number of registrations for junior and senior players is at an all-time high.
“And that’s straight after a pandemic, which is just testament to the incredible amount of good work by so many good people out there.”
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