Robert Elstone is to quit as executive chairman of Super League, paving the way for a return to a single governing body for rugby league.
The 57-year-old former Everton chief executive had been in the post since June 2018 but had come under increasing pressure recently to resign and in 2020 survived a vote of no confidence.
A statement said: “Super League can confirm that it has received notice of executive chairman Robert Elstone’s intention to leave his position.
“The matter will be discussed by the Super League board and no further comment will be made at this time.”
— Betfred Super League (@SuperLeague) February 9, 2021
Elstone was recruited by Super League clubs dissatisfied by the running of the game by the Rugby Football League (RFL) to head up a rival administration to prioritise the distribution of central income generated by the top flight.
His priority was to negotiate a new television deal, with the current contract with Sky Sports due to run out at the end of the 2021 season, and also sought to bring in extra revenue through private equity investment.
However, clubs recently rejected a proposal that is thought to have been worth £61million in return for giving up a 27 per cent stake to Novalpina Capital and officials are also bracing themselves for a reduction in TV income.
Plans to sell to a private equity firm would have needed unanimous support but Leeds, St Helens, Warrington and Leigh were all thought to have voted against and now the league is facing a bill for a finders fee of around £750,000.
Clubs were also split over the decision to decline Toronto Wolfpack’s application to rejoin Super League in 2021, a move strongly advocated by Elstone.
Elstone’s departure now looks certain to spark fresh moves to merge the two governing bodies.
Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington went out on a limb in 2017 when the majority of Super League clubs voted to break away from the RFL, a move he described as an “absurd grab for power for the game by a small group of men who think they own the game”.
St Helens chairman Eamonn McManus was a big supporter of Elstone but has since aligned himself with Hetherington’s views.
Rugby league officials have also come under pressure to reunify the game by the Government, who have made a total of £28m available in loans to offset the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
A likely reduction in income from the next television deal will be acutely felt by Championship and League 1 clubs who are likely to see Elstone’s departure as potentially the end of rugby league’s civil war and will debate their next move at a scheduled meeting on Wednesday.