The Case for a Summer League of League

Filed in Other by on December 10, 2010

Every summer, the sun burning my Jew nose and time ticking over slower than if I was forced to watch the Melbourne Victory take on the Perth Glory, I usually reach the conclusion that boredom is eating away at me like ringworms on the skin of a cat-wife. No matter how I may try to dress it up or dress it down, when I get to the naked truth there is only one reason for the kind of social boredom that allows you to sleep fourteen hours a day, drink wine relentlessly without consideration for time or day and meander from watermelon to mango and back again with all the enthusiasm of a college kid just finished with the bucket bong: no football.

Autumns and winters and at least a third of spring have meaning and structure and regularity and The Weekly Fix thanks to rugby league. I suppose AFL fans enjoy the same thing but frankly I don’t know nor particularly care. There is the anticipation of early autumn followed by the doona-like security of the winter schedule- teams on Tuesday, opening prices on Wednesday, Big League and Rugby League Week on Thursday, late mail on Friday morning and games from Friday night through Monday- all culminating in the desperate excitement of spring. Time is spent watching football, talking football, thinking football, listening football, reading football, considering football. There are team line-ups and fantasy squads, betting lines and coaching controversies, screaming tries and shattering hits and plenty more.

And then, all of a sudden come early October it is done and like a recently reformed junkie, there is plenty of time and not a lot to do. I am not the only one who is depressed by the notion of five warm months of nothingness. In her latest post, Oh Errol legend Kiki wrote about the post-season funk feeling like “something had stolen my heart and filled my chest with sad, sad cement”. Hunter S. Thompson titled his suicide note “Football Season is Over”: he understood how profoundly desperate the desolation of season’s end is. I have spent days, possibly weeks, on end overlooking Sydney harbour or the O’Connor shops with our very own Mr. Rugby wasting away the hours until next winter, getting by on gin and memories.

It was over one of these rugby league wakes that the idea of a televised high-level rugby league competition to be played over summer first germinated. At the Front Bar of the Sebel Pier One in Sydney one December afternoon, to be as precise as possible. It was a sunny afternoon and we were seated next to an odd bear who had a habit of interjecting himself into conversations he was not part of and then pointing his finger into the chest of a stunned onlooker while slurring some irrelevant and obnoxious point. The barman noted this but was too full of self-loathing to care. All the while the Fisk Dog and I drank gin and came up with a solution to our problem of no league down The Warm Stretch. The night ended, reportedly, with one of us waking up spread-eagled on top of a Mini in Glebe while the other ended up at a dodgy two-up school $800 the worse for wear. That is the kind of behaviour a life without football leads too.

At any rate, the idea of a summer rugby league competition had merit and still does. It is a concept without too many flaws. The idea may sound odder than watching Greenman dance around the Maypole while in the throes of an acid trip but it is doable and could prove just the remedy for the mid-summer malady that no football brings on.

All cricket and soccer makes Jack a dull boy

For a summer league to work it would need to be run as a supplementary competition to the NRL, not in opposition to it. It would need the support of a television network. It would need be innovative on the field with various rule changes and production novelties to make the league seem “fun” in the same manner the Arena Football League did in relation to American football. It would need a model of private ownership for the teams and it would need a strict adherence to a salary cap to ensure costs did not spiral out of control to the point that the league would not be viable.

The way it would work is something like this. Eight teams, all privately owned, would be formed. Four would be based in New South Wales (two in Sydney, one in Newcastle, one in Wollongong) and four would be based in Queensland (two in Brisbane, one on the Gold Coast, one in northern Queensland…there could even be one based in Papua New Guinea). Teams would be filled with players not on NRL rosters meaning that rosters would be filled with NSW Cup and QLD Cup players, players too old for the Toyota Cup but unsigned to an NRL team, star players from country competitions, PNG players, players forced out of the NRL because of the salary cap, unsigned players who may be looking for an opportunity to catch the eye of NRL clubs and players from lower level English competitions. NRL clubs could also use the competition to trial potential signees or put game fitness into the legs of players who spent most of the previous NRL season sidelined with injury as well. There would be no huge names and the money on offer wouldn’t lure them over: the aim is to showcase rugby league by good players while we all wait for the big show to return.

In terms of ownership, there are plenty of rich types who would love to own a footy team and there are plenty of betting shops who would provide sponsorship knowing they will now have a new competition to bet on.

The competition would run for either eight weeks or eleven weeks with clubs either playing each other once or playing teams within their state twice and teams in the opposite state once. The top team from each state would then play in the final.

Games would be played midweek for television purposes. Fox Sports would almost definitely want to be involved. Rugby league matches are the highest rated shows on pay television and considering the lack of attractive sports programming over summer, the chance to show a Twenty20 like rugby league competition would have to be attractive. It surely has more upside than domestic cricket and the A-League in terms of ratings and public interest and reports are that Fox are happy with the ratings for the Toyota Cup games. Matches would be double-headers and would be played at smaller grounds and in regional centres.

On the field, anything is possible but I would imagine that the competition would be used to showcase attacking rugby league and test new innovations. The game could be shortened to sixty minutes and perhaps played in quarters. There may be a season where the number of players on the field is reduced to eleven or twelve. The competition could be used to test out a new challenge video refereeing system. Tries from kicks could be reduced or tries could increase in value depending on how many hands the ball went through or where the play started. Coaches would be microphoned up so spectators get a better idea of how they think. The same could be done to halfbacks or captains. Referees could explain their decisions to the crowd as is the case in the NFL. A trial prohibiting dummy half runs or introducing free kicks rather than penalties could be tried as could a five minute sin bin. The options are limitless and it could actually improve the NRL competition, the summer league being a form of controlled trial.

Marketing would be critical. Similar to the way the Moonee Valley Racing Club has promoted night racing, the competition would have to provide incentives to attend such as cheap drinks, showbags, a party tent afterwards etc. Essentially the targets would be young guys and girls looking for a fun night out.

Such a competition would also take the battle to the AFL and soccer. It would showcase rugby league nationally, albeit a shortened or non-traditional version, at a time when the AFL is not in season and would take on soccer head on, something Football Federation Australia is desperate to avoid. A summer league wouldn’t prove anything but it would allow rugby league to land a blow and expand its footprint nationally.

A summer league of league is nothing more than the pipe dream of a league freak desperate for his hit. It is the desperation seen and felt by Harry and Ty and Marion when fall hit in Requiem For A Dream but the best choices come just when there’s nothing to lose. The USFL was, on some level, successful until it attempted to take on the NFL. The Arena Football League lasted over twenty years. The XFL would have been far more successful had it not been tarnished by its association with professional wrestling.

It is a pipe dream but it is doable. The model is right here. All we need are the right people and some cash and we can have our league fix all year round. Rugby league needs vision and this should be part of the grand plans for the future.

At any rate, it is an idea that shouldn’t infuriate too many people and it should keep the lawyers at bay at least for a little while.

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