Expansion methods of the local football codes
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Never before have so many football codes been on the lookout for expansion, and each code uses different criteria and methods to establish what they all hope will be a successful franchise system.
In this article, I want to take a look at the various methods used by governing bodies to expand their premier leagues in this great country.
I have deliberately not included the A-League in this article due to its relative newness which would make for unfair comparison. Similar applies to Super Rugby, for the simple reason that it has a far shorter history.
It’s important to acknowledge that soccer played its role as the pioneering National League in 1975 with the formation of the National Soccer League.
Although this league no longer exists – subsumed as it was into the A-League after its collapse – it was the first to be truly national with a presence in most states and territories with the usual obvious exceptions.
The AFL Experience
In 1979, the then Victorian Football League began to explore the possibility of playing matches in Sydney, leveraging greater television exposure not then available to it in Victoria.
By 1980, the VFL were looking at sending the hapless South Melbourne to the Harbour city, and by 1982 the Bloods were completely based in Sydney.
In 1986, the VFL decided to expand further seeking interest from WA and SA state leagues, when SA opted out, the VFL setup the Bears in Brisbane. It would be another 4 years before Adelaide would be represented, in 1995, Fremantle were admitted, and in 1997 Port Adelaide finally received entry.
To date no expansion teams have come near collapse, in fact most of them are doing extraordinarily well, especially in Perth and Adelaide.
Sydney and Brisbane have both been harder sells to their respective cities, both clubs dabbling in private ownership, requiring the VFL/AFL to bail them out and take them over before turning them over to the membership structure common to all AFL teams (except Fremantle).
The only VFL/AFL clubs to cease operating at the top level, have been University (due to the first world war where most of the team was involved), and Fitzroy, who merged their AFL operations, but still exist in the Victorian Amateurs, and remain the only club to play at all levels of the Victorian club competitions since inception (AFL/VFL/VFA/VAAFL).
The NRL Experience
In 1982, the New South Wales Rugby league expanded outside of Sydney, to Canberra and Illawarra, and in 1985 decided to go beyond New South Wales to Brisbane, where it was voted down in 1987.
Nevertheless in 1988, the Broncos joined the NSWRL, along with Gold Coast-Tweed Heads and Newcastle. Of these clubs, only Gold Coast-Tweed no longer exists.
The NSWRL expanded to Perth in 1992 with the Western Reds, and the competition became multi-national with the Auckland Warriors (now New Zealand Warriors) joining the league in ’95. The NSWRL became the Australian Rugby League in 1995, introducing the Auckland Warriors (now New Zealand Warriors) and North Queensland Cowboys.
This period later set off a chain of events leading to the infamous Super League war. Super League introduced two teams of its own the Adelaide Rams, and Hunter Mariners.
No one from rugby league likes to rehash the Super League days, but I must briefly dwell upon it. The 1998 NRL season could have had as many as 22 teams sign up to play. Three teams had to go, and room had to be made for the new Melbourne Storm.
The financial basket cases at the Western Reds and the South Queensland Crushers were closed, and News Ltd. closed the Hunter Mariners believing the region could not support them, and the ARL premiership winning Newcastle.
At the end of 1998, News Ltd. closed the unprofitable Adelaide Rams, while the ARL inexplicably closed the Gold Coast Chargers despite them being profitable and having more than $3 million in the bank when they were wrapped up.
Further changes as a result of the peace agreement was the forced reduction of teams to 14 by the year 2000 in the premier competition. Stringent criteria were laid out that included crowds, finances, sponsorship and success rates.
Clubs were offered a great deal of money to merge. St George merged with Illawarra in 1998, Balmain and West, as well as Manly and Norths merging in 1999. Souths were eliminated at the end of the 1999 season for failing to meet the critera.
Its important for non-rugby people to understand that mergers werent the result of any financial insolvency, and most merged clubs have maintained a second division team in the level directly below the Telstra Premiership.
Norths are attempting to be reborn as the Central Coast Bears and are currently pressing for a bid for inclusion in the 2013 season.
The Reds have arisen again in under 18s, due to the diligence of the WARL. And like a phoenix, a new Gold Coast side (take three) has become a success.
The only league failures can really be pointed at the Western (Perth) Reds in their original incarnation, the Adelaide Rams, the South Queensland Crushers, and two seperate versions of the Gold Coast. The Chargers were not a failure, and the reasons for its closure remain baffling to me (although I’d love to be enlightened from a more knowledgeable person).
In recent years we’ve seen a flurry of expansion activity as the A-league ramps up, the AFL moves out of its heartland into hostile waters, Rugby Union goes to Melbourne and Perth, and the NRL gains its much awaited Independent Commission.
The Australian Football League announced teams into the Gold Coast and Western Sydney. Pundits from the NRL community have continuously mentioned that both clubs aren’t wanted, and bring up the fact that no one bid for them.
This ignores the process.
Besides Port Adelaide (SANFL) and Southport (QAFL), the AFL doesnt use a bidding process to determine where its next teams come from.
Over the years we’ve seen excellent bids from Tasmania which have been ignored for the moment, and Southport, where a compromise of sorts has been reached with Southport being the patron sponsor of the new Suns.
The NRL are currently receiving bids from the WA Reds, Central Coast Bears, Central Queensland, Ipswich, Brisbane and rumours abound of a possible second New Zealand entrant.
In almost all cases, these are being driven from the ground up, instead of an AFL style top down approach.
The AFL has taken a very business like approach, based on population centres, market research, income streams and growth of the game itself. It then uses this information to determine where a team is most desirable.
The Gold Coast and Western Sydney are huge population centres, with untapped sporting populations where not everyone likes rugby league. Further boosting its national profile – the AFL remains present in all major states, with a massive bid in its pocket from Tasmania, where Hawthorn play four matches a year.
The AFL does not allow private ownership having spent some years battling issues in Brisbane, Sydney, and more recently at North Melbourne.
The AFL has strict deadlines for each new club to meet, which includes more than 100 sponsors and stadium arrangements to be in place before the teams place in the league is finalised.
In contrast, the NRL does take bids to determine popularity and team requirements, the Central Coast Bears and Central Queensland bids are populist, grassroots driven movements from the heartland of Rugby league and cannot be easily dismissed by anyone with a heart for the game.
The Western Reds, while a theoretical success in potential crowds, is more of a business call to make if for no more reason that its historical antecedents. Second teams in Brisbane and New Zealand also make a lot of sense from a commercial perspective.
There is currently no word on NRL criteria for teams, but NRL officials have been quite favorable in their opinions on several of these entries lending hope for their inclusion in 2013.
Neither side is wrong in their approach. The NRL is to be commended for their commitment to the heartland, and its supporters are to be commended for keeping the dream alive for so long and despite so much opposition and adversity.
Likewise, the AFL is to be commended for its business approach and attention to detail, as well as its ability to assemble media, government and sponsor support for its new ventures.
Neither side just creates a team for the sake of expansion. As long as NRL and AFL can commit to these new enterprises and support them, there’s no reason to doubt their success.