Many articles floated recently have called for drastic changes to the structure of rugby in Australia. It’s been great to see a diverse range of ideas and suggestions to help get rugby (and the Wallabies) back on top.
Locally, many opinions voice the need for a third-tier competition and a revamp of the schoolboys program. Concerns have been raised regarding the lack of player depth and the failure to convert promising juniors into professionals.
Fierce competition for athletes across the four football codes in Australia, plus the pull of big dollars by the European and Japanese markets, aids an increasing drain on talent.
Add in the difficulty of remaining financially competitive in our sporting economy and there certainly are a lot of challenges facing rugby administrators. I will leave these initial issues for the moment and focus on a high level concept.
First, some context. I grew up in country NSW where summer = cricket and winter = rugby.
League was just rugby for the guys with criminal records and AFL was some game down in Mexico for the skinny kids who couldn’t tackle and dropped the ball a lot.
My view, like the Australian sporting landscape, has matured. While geographically some codes maintain dominance, each is well and truly a national game in its own right. That fact alone makes Australia a Mecca for sports lovers globally.
I believe one of the biggest errors the AFL, ARU, NRL and FFA continually make is their assessment of the Australian public.
Forever fighting for the largest piece of the pie, they seem to forget that at the core of every Milo cricket kid or Auskick trooper is a sports fan.
The AFL fights hard for its membership numbers, NRL clubs raid the private schools for the top rugby union talent and all codes become more and more driven by the TV sponsorship dollars.
So how do we reverse this divisive trend and get rugby in particular to build its supporter and player base?
Perhaps the best way to grow is to share.
Let’s explore some potential benefits of cross-code club mergers – my example, the NSW Waratahs amalgamating with the Sydney Swans.
First – the club.
Centralising the management, medical staff, training facilities and administration is a no-brain cost-saver. Similar to KFC selling burgers and pies, the club now has a strong multi-product brand to sell.
Sponsorship can boom with marketing exposure now in two different codes.
Second – coaches/players.
The potential synergies to be created through cross-training are immense. While each sport is highly specialised, benefits can surely be gained for rugby players regarding kicking and elite level fitness.
Similarly, tackling and contact sessions could vastly improve aspects of an AFL players’ game.
Lastly – the fans.
Sydney is a great city for a ‘super’ club, with the SCG, Allianz Stadium and Moore Park backing onto the Centennial Parklands.
As a potential Tahs-Swans member, I can catch the bus or proposed light rail from work to the venue on a Friday to watch the Tahs v Crusaders or the Swans take on the Pies.
A double-header on Saturday would allow me a feast of sport, with a gentle 50m stroll from one game to the other. Before I just watched the AFL, but now I am fence-side supporter of two codes.
A tick in the box for both! 35,000 Bloods fans combined with 15,000 Tah-men.
Now look at same concept in Melbourne, say the Rebels and the Richmond Tigers. Two clubs that also play alongside each other at AAMI Park and the home of Australian Sport, the MCG.
We’re talking a combined 70,000-plus registered members. Even if dual attendees comprise 10 to 15 percent of both crowds, this would be significant growth for both clubs at present.
While any such venture presents huge challenges and many hurdles to be cleared along the way, I believe the concept of ‘super clubs’ provides immense opportunities for all sports lovers and participants.
Sports clubs are big business in Australia. Perhaps now is the chance for them to start behaving like it.
Rugby, and its fans, could be the biggest beneficiary.