The NRL needs a vision
Whether you love him or loathe him, Australian rugby league fans have got him for another four years. Within the last fortnight David Gallop has been reappointed NRL CEO by the Independent Commission for another four years.
In my humble opinion, he’s been exactly what the league has needed since he first got the job 10 years ago. Considering the state the game was in when he took over the reins, he’s done an outstanding job.
He brought rugby league back from the brink, helped it to find it’s identity in the professional era and has begun to grow the game in the right direction, albeit at a very slow and controlled pace.
Moving into 2012, (a year that the much hyped Independent Commission is set to come online and the NRL rivers should be flowing with gold after the negotiation of a record TV deal) the game is at the dawn of a new and exciting period.
Rugby league will be able to move ahead bravely and boldly with full faith in its product. A far cry from the cautious and guarded initiatives that the games administrators have employed to gradually grow the NRL over the last decade.
With this in mind, one must wonder if Gallop is the right man to lead the game into this new era. After signing on for the next four years Gallop is quoted as saying, “we are entering a new period of opportunity that I am excited to be part of”.
This gives me hope that David is ready to turn over a new leaf in his managerial style and make some big and exciting decisions to drive the game ahead, while still exercising his signature decision making approach of controlled growth.
Considering the large amounts of money that are set to flow into the game in the coming years, our CEO must create a clear and defined vision of where he wants to take the game, taking a similar approach to his AFL counterpart.
What has to override this is the desire to make the NRL better for the fans. There is one simple way that this can be achieved that has a flow on effect to many different aspects that all contribute to making a stronger product for the fans.
Very simply, more fans means more money coming into the game from sponsors, the media and from the fans themselves. More money means a better product.
Gallop has been at the helm during a period when some of the games biggest stars turned their back on the NRL in favour of Rugby, Super League and most recently the AFL. This cannot continue to happen.
There’s one simple answer to this problem and its money. With the salary cap expected to increase to anywhere between six and eight million dollars in the coming years, things are being done to ensure the player drain is a thing of the past.
However, the NRL must maintain this position as one of Australian sports best payers to keep its biggest and most talented stars. rugby league fans in this country deserve to see the best rugby league players in the world playing in the toughest competition in the world week in week out.
Paying players accordingly will ensure that the playing talent in the NRL is as strong as it can be and some of the games biggest draw cards remain where they belong.
More money (as a result of more fans) in the game can also create a better viewing spectacle for the fans on so many different levels. Obviously ensuring that the playing talent is at maximum strength and spread across the league helps with this too. As well as this there is the potential for developing better venues for fans to go and watch games from.
More fans in general means more fans actually going to games which creates a better viewing experience for spectators at the game as well as those watching on TV at home.
A stronger following also ensures the game will have better media coverage. Three free to air games per week (only one of which is live) isn’t exactly a strong position in the media for rugby league to exist from.
All of these factors combine to create a stronger product for those new fans entering the game as well as those of us who are already invested but always wanting more. But the question remains, how does David Gallop do his job of capturing the hearts and minds of as many people as possible to build a better league?
I believe there are two strategies he can use to take full advantage of the wave of good fortune that the NRL is set to ride.
The first and most publicised is expansion. In the past I have put forward and argued with many of you over the merits of dropping the Sydney NRL clubs into a second tier and beginning again at the elite level in that area.
I’ve proposed a streamlined 12 team competition that would include new teams from Perth and Gosford as well as a full time team in Wollongong and two new sides in Sydney.
I still believe this format would be the optimum model for the game to take on to be as efficient, professional and economically stable/prosperous as possible.
The problem is that realistically I don’t believe any current or future CEO possesses the manhood to put these Sydney clubs in a second tier where they should belong and create a competition structure at the elite level that is more up with the times.
For this reason, we have to come to terms with the fact that the game will have to grow around the Sydney suburban competition structure that it was born out of in this country. As this is the case, I believe that all Sydney clubs need to remain in their current form. Dropping one or some will just isolate fans (case in point- North Sydney) and the NRL must work out how to grow while continuing to prop up these clubs.
It won’t allow the game to be as economically prosperous as the model I’ve suggested, but the extra money flowing into the game should ensure these clubs can continue operating in the NRL.
So now that we’re keeping the 16 teams as is, what other parts of the map does DG need to put a tack into? While capturing the hearts and minds of as many people as possible is vital for the games growth, it isn’t as simple as putting a team where people are and obviously a number of different factors need to be weighed up.
As I’ve suggested above, Perth, Gosford and a full time team in Illawarra are my first three choices for the locations of the next NRL teams.
Perth’s merits have been argued on this site and others so I won’t go into much detail. A quick summary includes the fact that Perth is our fourth largest city, booming and has a large population of NSW, Queensland and New Zealand expats.
The demographics say it all but what’s also important is that for the game to grow substantially, it must make moves into uncharted territory and the west coast represents a great opportunity for rugby league.
Gosford’s merits have also been extensively argued in other posts. Put simply, it’s a rugby league heartland, located between Sydney and Newcastle in an area that isn’t represented by an NRL team.
There’s currently a large population there and it’s going to continue to grow as more and more people move north from Sydney and other parts of the country. The stadium’s there ready to go and they absolutely deserve a shot after being neglected for so long.
I also believe that Wollongong deserves a full time NRL team just as much as these two areas. The argument for this takes on a similar form as the argument for a team on the Central Coast.
Wollongong’s current representation in the NRL is an involvement in a team that doesn’t use their traditional strip or logo but to keep locals engaged in the sport they’re thrown a few Dragon’s home games each year. This isn’t good enough for a city the size of the ‘Gong.
Just like Gosford, it’s growing at fast pace as affordability in Sydney becomes an increasingly problematic issue. Illawarra is also one of rugby league’s greatest heartlands and the region deserves far greater representation than the Dragons merger offers.
Take the Illawarra out of the Dragons and the next closest team is in the Shire which is an hour away from Wollongong. I propose a de-merger of the Steelers and the Dragons with the two teams going back to the future with one playing explicitly out of WIN and the other out of Kogarah.
If these teams were to be admitted it would create a 19 team competition which is a bit of a messy number. To bring it up to a neat 20 I would reluctantly bring in a second Brisbane team. I say reluctantly because although I believe a second team can be a success in Brisbane, it will come at a cost to an existing NRL club (the Broncos).
However, the Broncos are in the best position of all NRL clubs to absorb any such cost and over time a strong rivalry can be built between themselves and a new club that has the potential to make rugby league even stronger in the greater Brisbane area.
What also has to happen with a second team in Brisbane is the model that the ‘Bombers’ are putting up has to be put on the scrap heap (including the name). If a second Brisbane team were to enter the league it would have to provide a point of difference to the Broncos. Currently the Broncos are based and play out of a venue on the north side of Brisbane.
I believe the point of difference should be establishing a team on the south side of the river. This could involve renovating QEII or building a boutique 30-40,000 seat venue close to a large commercial centre on the south side. With the Roar playing out of a venue that is far too big for them, there could be a case for building such a stadium. By tapping into the north/south divide that already exists in Brisbane, there is the potential for developing a great rugby league rivalry in the town.
This would create a 20 team competition. It would be up to the powers that be as to whether they bring these teams in all at once, two at a time or at a steady flow. Regardless, this is where I believe the NRL should be heading. Past this, cities such as Adelaide, the Sunshine Coast and Rockhampton are the next places they should be looking at but this 20 team model would suffice for the next 5 to 10 years.
Having decided what areas to expand to in the short term, the next aspect that needs to be looked at is creating an exciting competition structure that meets the needs of players and fans.
With these 20 teams I would structure a league that involves 5 pools of 4 teams. The competition draw would involve teams playing each team once then the 3 teams in their pool a second time.
This would create a 22 round season with 11 home games. You could still include a bye for each team during the Origin period to create a regular season length of 23 weeks. A slightly shorter season is one issue that I think the NRL must come to terms with to address player burnout while continuing to develop the representative scene.
The five pools I would have would be structured like this;
A Queensland pool that involves the Broncos, Brisbane 2, NQ and the Gold Coast.
A Western Sydney pool involving Parramatta, West Tigers, Canterbury and Penrith.
An East Sydney pool involving Cronulla, St George, Souths and Easts.
A North/Coastal New South Wales pool involving Manly, CC, Newcastle and Illawarra.
And finally a Southern pool involving Perth, Canberra, Melbourne and NZ.
These pools would create a more meaningful competition that involves extra games against regional rivals, thus generating more ‘blockbuster’ games that have the potential of attracting strong crowds/viewers and of course more money for the game.
At the end of the regular season the final series would involve the top team from the top 4 pools and then the next 4 highest ranked teams after that regardless of what pool they are in. This structure would help build on the rivalry between the teams in each pool as there would be an emphasis on finishing first in the pool to have a 4 in 5 chance of guaranteeing a spot in the finals.
This is my vision for the NRL given the reality that there will never be any big shake up of the structure of the game in Sydney. Given that you’re reading this particular rugby league article, I’m sure you have your own vision that could be similar or nothing like what I have proposed here.
For the benefit of the game moving forward and becoming an even better product, I just hope and pray that the only guy who really matters in all of this has his vision that he is ready to unleash upon all of us and drive the game to new heights in this country.