It’s Time to Turn Pro: Some Thoughts on NRL Expansion

Filed in Other by on December 10, 2010

The AFL last week announced that they were moving to the Gold Coast, the competition’s seventeenth team set to be located on the sunshine strip from 2011. Attention will then turn to Western Sydney, where reality will stand in stark contrast to the AFL’s belief that it is their manifest destiny to rule the football land. Andrew Demetriou views himself as Australian football’s equivalent of Duff Green, an arrogant expansionist who believes it is the divine fate of Australian Rules to stand alone as the only relevant football code in Australia. He believes that once the missionaries land and the dollars are invested, that the rugby league heartlands of Queensland and New South Wales will abandon the game they love for another that is completely foreign and somewhat disagreeable to the game and the traditions they have been raised on.

The AFL is rolling the dice on an all-or-nothing bet and as such, they will lose. The AFL is not happy to play second fiddle in Sydney, Brisbane or the Gold Coast, refusing to be viewed as a niche sport in New South Wales and Queensland. Worse, the AFL is chancing its hand on these new territories they hope to conquer rather than coexist in at the expense of a heartland such as Tasmania. The cost to the AFL will be heavy and will result in plenty of lost funds, a great deal of embarrassment and the death of at least one northern team, if not more. Only shameless stubbornness will keep the AFL feeding money into a second Sydney team in an area that has not the slightest interest in Australian Rules, throwing good money after bad in order to protect a bruised ego.

It is doubtful that Narcissus held as high an opinion of himself as the AFL has of itself.

The fact the AFL thinks it can wander in to rugby league’s backyard and establish a second team when the first one has only marginal support, in these grave economic times, only serves to show how blindly arrogant the organisation is. When the Swans played a final at ANZ Stadium last season, less than 20,000 showed up to a sport that is supposedly at its best live, the lowest finals crowd in over a century. Sydney can only just support the Swans. The data used to support the move north is also fundamentally flawed with one example being the participation rates in Sydney and on the Gold Coast oft-quoted. The AFL claims participation when in reality, the participation is temporary and forced with kids who play Australian rules in PE and attend school coaching clinics deemed to be part of the junior structure of the AFL. The simple fact is that Sydney is certainly not going to support two AFL teams.

David Gallop and the NRL can learn a lot from the mistakes the AFL are soon to realise.

Chiefly, rugby league, like Australian rules, does not have a manifest destiny to rule the land. Neither code will die. Neither conquer the other. Coexistence is the only end and any arrogance that forecasts otherwise will come at a hefty cost.

Rugby league, to its credit, has never taken this attitude. The Melbourne Storm are a prime example. They have become the premier and most successful niche sports team in the home of Australian rules. The Storm doesn’t attempt to compete with AFL clubs. The NRL never put a team in Melbourne with the end goal to own the city. The Storm were established to give the NRL a foothold in Melbourne and it has worked. The Storm were given the time, money and support to succeed and they have, winning two premierships and playing in four grand finals in eleven seasons. More importantly, the Storm get very good crowds and support from the local media. They have helped grow junior rugby league and have played a significant role in laying the foundations of making the Melbourne Storm a viable operation. The model of the Melbourne Storm should be used when the decision is made by the NRL to expand.

And expansion has certainly been on the agenda over the last three weeks with talk circulating that the NRL would like to grow to eighteen teams by the time of the next television deal is negotiated in 2012.

Though what the NRL is talking about is not really expansion but the addition of new teams. While the difference is small there is a difference and that difference will be reflected in the next television deal.

The Central Coast Bears are certain to be the seventeenth team in the competition and rightly so. The Central Coast is a high growth area with a custom-built stadium while the Bears organisation has history, likeability and worth on their side. Expansion into the Central Coast seems only natural.

What would be foolish, however, is if the NRL places an eighteenth team also in rugby league heartland as it looks like it will with a second Queensland team, to be located in either Brisbane or the Sunshine Coast, the favourite to grab the spot. It would be a wasted opportunity and will cost the NRL financially if they don’t at least look at Perth or Wellington.

This may sound hypocritical after criticism has been levelled in these pages over the AFL’s decision to abandon Tasmania for western Sydney but there are three significant differences between the NRL choosing Perth over a fourth Queensland team and the AFL choosing a second Sydney team over Tasmania. Firstly, the NRL is already looking after Queensland in terms of NRL teams while the AFL has nothing in Tasmania aside from a loose relationship with Hawthorn. Secondly, the AFL already has a team in Sydney while the NRL has nothing in Perth. Finally, an NRL team in Perth stands some chance of success. A second AFL team in Sydney has exactly no hope.

Perth offers a tremendous opportunity to expand the game of rugby league. The Western Reds were never really given a chance but the town can work if a Melbourne Storm like model is set up. A population of ex-pat South Africans and East Coasters along with plenty of mining money could make a Perth team a success. Rugby league will never compete with the AFL in Perth but a space exists for rugby league to become a niche sport.

And there is more than enough talent going around to cover two extra teams despite the objections of the neigh-sayers. A quick scan of the NSW Cup, Queensland Cup and the Toyota Cup attests to that.

Why Perth is important to rugby league is that by expanding into new territories, it will increase the value of the code in terms of television. While adding two new teams from rugby league heartland will add to the value of the NRL’s next television deal based purely on the fact there will be an extra game, having a team from a non-traditional rugby league areas would add to the footprint of rugby league viewership. An extra game combined with a move into a new area such as Perth would add tremendous television value to the NRL, much of which can be used to ensure the team was financially supported during its infancy.

There will be plenty of talk about whether such a risk is warranted and where the money will come to fund it. While I am no Warren Buffet and I do not pretend to know how much it costs to run a rugby league team, I can say with absolute confidence that there would be a great deal more currency circulating in the rugby league economy if the NRL took its head out of its own ass and allowed players and clubs to be sponsored by betting firms. The NRL continues to take a somewhat puritanical and moralistic line when it comes to betting shop sponsorship (though, admittedly, less so than a few years back) and in doing so, costing the clubs plenty. The NRL fails to recognise that aside from the NRL and its clubs and players, no other industry is as heavily invested in the future of rugby league as Australian betting shops. If a new team were to be set up in Perth, make no mistake about the fact that a firm like Centrebet or Sportsbet would jump at the opportunity to sponsor the team.

Of course, expanding to a new territory would be a colossal waste of time and resources if the NRL did not force the free-to-air broadcaster to show NRL games at a reasonable hour in those areas as they currently don’t with Nine. The greatest obstacle rugby league has in Melbourne is not the AFL but the NRL. David Gallop allows Nine to show both the Friday night games and the Sunday afternoon match after midnight outside of New South Wales and Queensland, allowing the host broadcaster to devalue the NRL product and stunt the growth of the sport because Nine is scared to go head-to-head with the AFL. How will rugby league ever increase its popularity in Melbourne and other non-traditional territories if it is never shown? The actions of Nine in showing movie repeats instead of their number one sport is disgraceful but the fact the NRL allows it is even more abhorrent. Nine are contractually obligated to show the match yet the NRL behaves like a beaten and scared dog when dealing with the network, refusing to wield the stick it actually holds. If the NRL is going to continue to allow the Channel Nine program directors to run the sport, there is no point in even considering expansion.

One would hope that by the time the next television deal rolls around that rugby league either sells the free-to-air rights to a different station or splits the rights up between channels with the stipulation that all games are shown nationwide either live or on a small delay.

The NRL needs to look at expansion. It is necessary for the prosperity of the game. If the league wants to continue to run the game as if it was amateur hour at The Apollo, however, there is no point. Get the broadcasters in line first and then look to spread the code.

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