Promoting relegation in rugby league, or how to untie the Sydney Knot

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    In the Game of Thrones series, there is a special act of explicit contortion known as the Meereenese Knot. Describing it is not suitable fodder for these family friendly pages, however, the phrase was rehashed by author George RR Martin to explain the difficulty he had in writing the fourth book of the series.

    The complexity of many characters and many happenings over many countries became so entangled that Martin was left with the difficult but liberating choice to cut the book in two. The fourth and fifth instalments in the series actually run in a chronological parallel to allow the time to cater to the complexities and deliver a riveting read.

    Martin took his inspiration from Alexander the Great and the fabled Gordian Knot, which the conqueror sliced in two with a sword, rather than untie it. And so as we stare deeply into the complexities of rugby league, we too should take inspiration in how we deal with the Sydney Knot – a concoction of history, apathy, monetary dependency – and take the bold decision to slice the NRL in two, and bring in an era of promotion and relegation.

    Why? What’s the problem?
    I will list out some of the key internal problems in the NRL and rugby league in general. The below is not exhaustive, nor is it data verified, but I’m not getting paid for this so bear with me.

    The Sydney Knot
    Sydney and rugby league is an enigma. The city is like an overbearing mother who keeps her child alive by never letting him leave the house. We in Sydney seem to simultaneously fund rugby league with our TV population, and strangle it with the sheer amount of teams. There are too many teams in Sydney, we cannot sustain it.

    But if you kill one of them, then just look at Norths. If you merge them, then look at the Tigers. If you relocate? Maybe. But I have a better idea.

    Expansion
    There are many places crying out for a chance at NRL. But how can we fit a new team in? Having more teams in the NRL will dilute the product, and stretch people’s interest thin. Look at the take up on Titans’ away crowds. Do we want that for Adelaide and Perth? And reducing a Sydney team to make way will drive out as many fans as it brings in.

    Expansion itself is also a risky, expensive game. The NRL can’t burn money like the AFL to engineer success. How can the NRL be confident on expanding when the last expansion is still teetering on failure?

    Homogeny
    In the early naughties, the NRL was trumpeting the success of a competition so even that a different team won each year. This engineered salary cap comp was making everything more exciting. Right? Or was it making everything more homogenous?

    Every team now costs the same, plays the same, talks the same, acts the same, looks the same, and horrendous things like percentage plays and conservative margins (not to mention wrestling) become the edge. Is this what we want?

    There is no character to the players or the teams and very little creativity in the coaching.

    Unsustainable success
    Worse still, the salary cap guarantees that success will be duly punished; excellence will be promptly rubbed out. Basketcase clubs will pay overs for talent and inevitably ruin their career.

    The better you are at managing your recruitment and getting results and building a premiership team, the more likely you are going to suddenly lose half your team and drop out of the eight.

    The loser is the club that gained short term fan growth from winning but can’t sustain a product and those fans disengage.

    John Sutton holds up the NRL Telstra Premiership trophy

    (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

    Other call outs
    Quality of games, player loyalty and contracts, grassroots support, player welfare, cannibalistic rep seasons, interest in the bottom of the table, and officiating (I won’t be addressing officiating).

    The solution
    We can see something has to be done. Most of us already knew that. But what could we do to tangibly mitigate most of the above problems? Here is where promotion and relegation comes in.

    The below can be flexed to make more sense with reality. But I’ve captured the elements which I think will save rugby league. A two tiered structure is detailed below:

    Area Premier Rugby League National Rugby League
    Tier 1 2
    Teams 12 12
    Cap (indicative) $15M $7.5M
    Grant $10M $7.5M + extraordinary travel expenses
    Prize Money $1M for premiers
    $1M for minor premiers
    N/A
    Promotion Premiers and highest placed club on regular season table to World Club Challenge Minor premier promoted; Teams 2-5 play knock outs for final position.
    Relegation Bottom two teams on regular season table N/A
    Expansion Remain 12 teams for foreseeable future All expansion clubs enter the NRL where safety nets protect low performing clubs.
    Philosophy To be the pinnacle rugby competition in the world, by rewarding excellence and success. To expand and develop the professional rugby league landscape in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.

    The mindset
    The key dynamic shift here is captured in the philosophy of each competition.

    The Premier Rugby League (I’m not precious about the name) will only produce high quality, high entertainment games. A concentration of talent at the league level, and an exceptional level of quality in the top half of the table. Watching top of the table clashes approaches representative standard football.

    To play in this league, to succeed in this league, is something that appeals to more than just our current community. There is a global following here, and players from rugby union codes look to the PRL as the next challenge.

    Brands like Melbourne Storm, Brisbane Broncos, South Sydney become synonymous with sustained success, because they are well run, have big fan-bases and the competition rewards them for this.

    Cameron Smith Melbourne Storm NRL Finals Rugby League 2016

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    The salary cap is significantly higher than the grant money. This is crucial. The cap is purposefully high as it rewards a club which generates profit. Idealistically, this league should aim to not have a salary cap once the clubs within can be trusted to run themselves successfully under a well-governed administration.

    The National Rugby League (maintaining the current NRL brand to indicate it is still a high standard league) will focus on cultivating clubs which are re-building, clubs which are maturing and expansion clubs entering the big leagues.

    There is a romance in this league. Some traditional clubs could return. New clubs could make a run.

    The key focus here is similar to the current NRL – providing a safety net of funding which means clubs can subsist on the NRL grant and use their investment capacity to develop players, staff and facilities in such a way that they can challenge for promotion and potentially survive the PRL.

    Is it a problem solver?
    If you look back at the selective and anecdotal list of problems, this system will address all of them to varying degrees. Suddenly the basket case Sydney clubs can persist, but not at the expense of the future.

    People will say they won’t support their team in a reserve grade, but I bet they would watch the final match of the NRL season if their club was playing off for promotion. We can bring back the Bears, maybe even de-merge the current mergers and provide an avenue for Perth, Brisbane 2, and Papua New Guinea.

    Expansion becomes a less risky endeavour. We don’t need Perth or Adelaide entering the competition and just hoping beyond hope they succeed long enough to survive. The safety net of the NRL lets them struggle for a while, and then, once established, they should be able to grow and challenge for promotion.

    Twenty-two rounds will improve player welfare and allow a representative window in the mid-season that does not impact the season. It is also a perfect home-and-away season for 12 teams.

    2017 Queensland Maroons State of Origin

    (AAP Image/Glenn Hunt)

    The football style should evolve too. Having top clubs with high quality rosters will see new heights reached. Developing clubs will adapt to manage this. Desperate clubs facing relegation will break their moulds. And the NRL, less polished, will potentially have a free flowing style like the English Super League.

    Success in the PRL is not an accident, and sustaining it leads to dynasties. How many people loved the Dragons, who dominated for 11 years, or the Souths teams that challenged them and cracked the 70s? How many ironed on fans do Canterbury and Parramatta still have from the 80s?

    A club synonymous with success and a club synonymous with being an underdog generates its own fans and narratives and rivalries. Manufactured salary caps cannot enable this.

    The enablers
    TV deal
    None of this is possible if the TV deal isn’t negotiated successfully. Suddenly there are only six top flight matches per week and fewer rounds per year. But the sell is on the quality of these games. There are no dud matches.

    Even 11th versus 12th has significance because of the threat of relegation. The prize for the minor premier makes the top spot on the table crucial. The finals spots (top four or top six) keeps mid table matches in the spotlight.

    The players are also a higher concentration of quality. The cap allows teams to form that are much stronger than today’s teams.

    The NRL would be part of the TV deal. Here is where we realise that we actually have 12 games a week to sell, and each game has traditional or emerging brands. The top half of the NRL table will be constant focus on who will get promoted, the romance of the Bears making it back to the top league, or Perth proving that it is now one of the big teams.

    These games have meaning. They will fill timeslots and attract eyeballs.

    The key is that the governing body pools the funding from the TV deal across the representative season, PRL and NRL and distributes in such a way that the NRL is sustained. But the most important thing – the most important – is the insistence that every NRL game is televised to ensure the teams get the required exposure to grow.

    Player development and transfer market
    Here is the final puzzle piece. It is so simple. We copy the European football model of player contracts and transfer markets. If you develop a great player and know that a richer PRL club will come knocking, then sign them to a five-year deal. If the player wants to move halfway through, then a transfer fee is negotiated.

    Canberra will suddenly be rolling in cash from all the players they develop and pass on – or alternatively they have the money to hold onto them and challenge for the top.

    Jordan Rapana Canberra Raiders NRL Rugby League 2017

    (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

    An extension here is a mandated coverage of grassroots areas for each club. Penrith will be responsible for servicing its junior leagues. Where clubs like the Roosters lack a juniors base, they are given coverage and feeder rights over a country zone.

    There should be minimum investment requirements and the reward is first dibs on the emerging talent.

    The risks
    Player Base
    This model will stretch the player base significantly. There may not be enough to keep the quality at the lower end of the NRL. This would need time to develop but could have negative impacts and perception in the early stages that is hard to return from.

    Not in our culture
    Australia struggles with promotion and relegation. Nobody likes it. This article is probably going to get ten comments – eight of them in disapproval and two of them off topic and talking about conference systems.

    To sell this model will be extremely difficult. But ultimately it is the problem which will be the solution – Sydney clubs. Big brand Sydney clubs toiling away in the NRL will always attract attention. Imagine a fall from grace Roosters or St George in the NRL. People will still be interested, even in apathy.

    Dominant teams
    This model and philosophy encourages something like European football leagues. Places where Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea are the only ones with a chance. That is very likely, but I don’t think it is a bad thing. People psychologically prefer consistency. But conceptually I believe most people will disagree with me.

    Cost
    It is unlikely the 24 teams can be funded with current money. The TV deal would have to increase, but potentially the approach is to have a smaller NRL in the first instance. Eight teams to begin with while expansion clubs prepare to join at each new TV deal.

    The NRL loses the battle
    The pivotal piece to all this is keeping the NRL relevant. If it is lost, then this model will actually accelerate a decline of rugby league.

    Wrap Up
    There is a chance to tackle some of the biggest issues in the game and set rugby league on a whole new growth trajectory all in one swift stroke.

    The Sydney Knot is starting to strangle the game, but by severing it we will mature in our biggest market and enable the game to properly realise its potential around Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific.

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