With the Western Force likely to be sensationally dumped from Super Rugby at season’s end, the NRL must take advantage of the hole the Force’s absence will leave in the Perth sports market.
Established in 2006, the Force have been unable to achieve any real success during their 11 seasons.
While they attracted reasonable numbers of 15,000-plus to games against fellow Australian sides in their early years, crowd figures and support have begun to wane.
In 2013, the Force achieved an average crowd of 12,631 and it remained steady at 12,751 in 2014, before beginning to fall. This season, across two home games, they have achieved a measly average of 7741.
While their decline is a discussion for another article, it sees the door swinging wide open for the NRL.
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In 2012, the West Coast Pirates established themselves as a genuine franchise prospect seeking to enter the National Rugby League. At the time, the group said they would only need two years to be ready to go as a first grade side, and set about strengthening their junior base.
They currently have an under-18s side playing in the SG Ball competition, and while they are presently sitting on the bottom of the table without a win this season, the fact they have had a side in the comp for over ten years (formerly as the WA Reds) is a sign of the commitment of West Australian Rugby League.
Polls conducted by both the Courier Mail and The Daily Telegraph over the last five years have shown the broader rugby league fans’ interest in having a WA side as the next expansion club, with Perth always polling highly, along with a second Brisbane team.
While it makes sense from a television timeslot and ratings point of view, the logistical aspects of travel and enticing current players to the other side of the country could prove challenging.
Former Western Reds player Mark Geyer regularly expresses his opinion that a side based in Perth could function, a view backed up by the crowd figures at recent NRL matches at the rectangular nib Stadium. Games featuring the New Zealand Warriors in Perth have attracted over 20,000-plus crowds on the last three occasions, while games between other NRL sides have been anywhere from the 13-15K mark.
The NRL has obviously earmarked Perth as a potential market to grow the game, as they are locked in to take a State of Origin match to the city in 2019. In what will be a first for the game’s most commercially portable product, the yet-to-be-completed Perth Stadium will likely host around 65,000 fans for the landmark match.
With Sydney’s ANZ Stadium set to be out of commission for up to four years while it undergoes a rebuild, the new Perth Stadium could be a potential site for an NRL grand final.
A strategic and aggressive move into Perth, with an Origin match in 2019, the grand final in 2020, and a team to begin playing from 2021 could help set-up a franchise with every possible chance of establishing firm foundations.
Perhaps the team could be ready to go in 2020, leaving a tantalising prospect of making a home grand final in their first year.
While these are simply dreamed scenarios, it is the type of vision that rugby league as a sport and the NRL as an organisation lacks.
For too long, the league has rested on its laurels and failed to make any real progression outside its heartlands. Take last season’s blowing of the record-breaking TV money and the clubs’ debts running up to phenomenal amounts.
The Perth Wildcats NBL club has achieved regular success in Australia’s small but unique domestic basketball competition, and most notably, they have one of the most consistent crowd figures in the league. Attendances of over 10,000 habitually pack into the 14,000-capacity Perth Arena, creating an atmosphere some NRL clubs would only dream of.
The AFL’s Fremantle Dockers and West Coast Eagles have achieved success throughout their histories. The Dockers have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, but both clubs enjoy a huge base of junior and lower-level competitions to strengthen their bases.
That is the main hurdle the NRL will have to overcome, but drawing inspiration from the Wildcats and learning the lessons from the Gold Coast Titans expansion will put them on a good path.
The Wildcats’ success proves the Perth public’s thirst for sport is there and ready. The Force’s expulsion might have just made it a little drier.
The NRL should wet their palate and make the move.
The time is right, the time is now.