NRL grand final, Test matches and Origin for sale
When Melbourne hosted the first of this year’s State-Of-Origin games, it caused a furore among rugby league fans in NSW.
Traditionally the series is played exclusively in Sydney and Brisbane with the two capitals alternating the home ground for two of the three matches.
Rugby league fans in Sydney, desperate to see NSW stop Queensland attain a record seventh straight series win, were livid because they lost home ground advantage and the chance to attend two of the three matches live.
Of course, its not the first time the game has gone to Melbourne. The last time it went there it was at the expense of a Queensland home game back in 2009.
In fact, that year Queensland were further disadvantaged because Brisbane didn’t play host until the final match.
This year the Melbourne match was sold out and brought record breaking TV ratings nationally and in Victoria for the NRL, even though in the preceding days the local promotion hardly penetrated the AFL saturated Melbourne media.
State-Of-Origin is the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ for the NRL. It was a concept created by the AFL but failed to be successful for them. It has proven to be a perfect concept for league.
Origin’s initial success was due to the passionate way that Queenslanders embraced the opportunity to correct the perceived injustices perpetrated against them by NSW over many decades, but Origin’s long term success is because Australia’s league territory is split evenly between the two states and therefore guarantee high-quality contests.
AFL players and fans didn’t embrace their ‘Origin’ because the Victorian team would dominate the three smaller states. Also, there is no incentive in AFL for players to gain selection in an Australian team through playing for their state.
Since the Melbourne match, there has been reports that Perth would like to bid for an Origin game. There is further speculation about New Zealand’s interest in hosting a game.
One report stated that selling game one to Melbourne was worth $2.5m to the NRL.
So what harm would come from allowing the first match of the series going off to the highest bidder? Sydney and Brisbane would each get to host one game each and alternate between second and third match year to year.
One problem would be time zones if the candidates include Perth and New Zealand. This would almost certainly push the game onto the weekend with a Saturday game for Perth and a Sunday game for New Zealand the best timing for TV in the eastern states.
This would please those who are calling for Origin on a stand alone weekend. Most NRL clubs are in favour of this because their players are either unavailable or backing up, sometimes two days after an Origin match.
There is a twofold benefit for the NRL. There is the extra revenue from the hosting rights and the promotion of the game in a city where league is not the main game.
Two years ago debate raged about Brisbane bidding for the NRL grand final. There was speculation that, as with their broadcasting deals, the NRL had undersold the value of the grand final. Brisbane argued that average crowds at Lang Park were larger than Homebush and as a purpose built football stadium it was an appropriate venue.
They also argued that Brisbane could boast a similar cultural rugby league pedigree as Sydney. Certainly having two cities bidding would drive the price up. Homebush has held the grand final since 1999, before that the Sydney Football Stadium took the grand final from the SCG in 1988.
The best and most logical rugby league ‘event’ type match is a Test match. Scheduled after the AFL grand final in October, the match would not be competing with AFL and would give West Australians and/or Victorians the opportunity to cheer for Australia. This is the advantage that the NRL has over AFL and they should do more to maximise this.
I would support these changes if the revenue is significant enough and is channelled directly into rugby league development and specifically for development in regional ‘grassroots’ areas.
One of the big issues facing the game at the moment is the lack of a quality second tier competition and with it a lack of a professional pathway for players throughout all of NSW. Currently all the NSW cup teams are located in Sydney, with the exception of Wollongong and Newcastle.
The NSW Cup could do with using the Queensland Cup as a model by having a broader geographical spread throughout the state.
The recent publicity about Wagga council signing an agreement with the new AFL Giants whereby they pay to have the Giants play trial games in Wagga is a symptom of the problem that league has in all of regional NSW. The local administrators in these areas are desperate for some higher profile contact with the NRL and NRL players who are often products of non-Sydney junior leagues.
The best boost that could be given to the game in regional NSW would be to have NSW cup teams located in towns like Wagga Wagga, Albury, Dubbo, Queanbeyan, Bathurst/Orange, Tamworth, Maitland and Port Macquarie. The teams would be feeder teams for NRL clubs just as the NSW cup teams are today.
If Wagga had a NSW cup team that featured contracted NRL players on standby for the Cronulla Sharks (for example) then the profile of this team in the town would be enormous.
This in turn would be a huge attraction to young guys to take up the game there. Increases in player numbers and the size of the general league community would then attract private sponsorship and funding from all levels of government.
A team in Albury as a feeder for the Melbourne Storm would make better geographical sense than the Storm’s current arrangement and it would help greatly in supporting the game in the area of NSW most challenged by the competition with AFL.
The NSW Cup with this structure would be very attractive to regional TV networks and therefore more likely to secure a broadcasting contract. I would continue with the current three conference structure to minimise travel costs.
The obstacle to launching this type of concept as always is money. This is where the revenue from the sale of major NRL events could be directed specifically for a development of this type. Once the teams are firmly established and embraced by their communities they will be better equipped to eventually operate with financial independence.