How much ownership talk can the Gold Coast Bear?

Alex Roar Rookie

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    We are in the midst of finals footy there is a lot of chatter about results, crowd numbers and the refs. But there is one other story that is bubbling away in the background that has piqued the interest of a niche group of rugby league fans – the sale of the Gold Coast Titans.

    Of course the Gold Coast locals are watching with interest, with a bumpy ten years behind them, the GC contingent will be hoping for a solid consortium to help steady the ship and ensure a long and prosperous future.

    The other group whose ears have pricked up are the old North Sydney faithful. For those that aren’t familiar with the news to date, word is that the Bears, combined with a big financial backing are making a play for the licence.

    Now let it be known off the bat that I would love to see the Bears back. Seeing the red and black playing in the top tier would be a dream, and am all for this even though they have stated they are fully committed to the Gold Coast region. As a Sydney-based fan, one home game at NSO versus Manly would be huge, and let’s be honest, with 8-9 ‘away’ games in Sydney anyway, I’d have plenty of opportunities to see them play.

    However I’m not writing this to say why the NRL should pick the Bears over the Titans, or why the GC should get behind the team – Billy Moore is doing that already. Why I am writing this is that I’ve noticed a lot of people who oppose the bid define the club by the fact their last premiership was in 1922, or that they were a ‘failed’ club that went broke.

    Billy Moore: Origin Legend

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    Yes it’s true, 1922 was their last premiership. However there is a lot more to the club than most people realise, or that is even widely published. Which is why despite an almost 20-year exodus people still get fire in the belly when talk of them coming back surfaces.

    Whether people like it or not, the Bears form a significant part of the history of rugby league in Australia. While there is debate, many league historians believe that North Sydney was the first club officially registered by NSWRL for the 1908 competition.

    When the league was established the majority of clubs adopted the colours of the local rugby union team, North Sydney were the only club to break that trend, rejecting the local union strip and instead opted to don the red and black we are still familiar with.

    The Bears lay claim to having the first Australian player ever to score a try against Great Britain in Jimmy Devereaux and may have also been the first club to have an indigenous captain, when they bestowed George Green, the first Indigenous rugby league player, with the captaincy in 1916. Bears stalwart Ken Irvine still to this day holds the league record of 212 tries in his career.

    In addition to this the Bears were the first team to ever draw 40,000 spectators against Easts in 1921, and in 1943 they were the first club to draw a 60,000+ crowd figure against Newtown. Even as late as 1991 and 1994, the Bears were Sydney’s most supported team, only trailing behind Brisbane and Newcastle.

    north sydney bears

    They were also the first ever rugby league team to have their match televised in Australia, playing against Balmain.

    All significant milestones.

    While the Bears still operate a successful junior RL district and team in the Intrust Super Premiership, their 109-year journey hasn’t been without its hurdles. These obstacles started straight from their inception with the Bears having no consistent home ground for the first two years of their existence, with the local council refusing to let them play at North Sydney Oval in order to preference rugby union.

    Their catchment area was cut down significantly, twice. Firstly, in 1922, the NSWRL took Ryde, North Ryde, Hunters Hill and Gladesville from the Norths District and gave it to Balmain. Secondly in 1947, the Northern beaches were taken away when Manly-Warringah entered the premiership.

    The Bears lost 33 grade players from this split, however it is a testament to the character of the club that they voted in favour of MW having their own team to grow the game, despite it being against their interests.

    The growth of Sydney has also given the Bears a number of challenges, after winning two premierships, construction of the Harbour Bridge commenced in 1923 which resulted in 500 working class homes from the area removed. Later in the late ’60s, the development of the Warringah freeway removed further homes and prevented the Bears from building their own purpose built stadium and also prevented the expansion of their Leagues club.

    Despite this, the Bears continued to build themselves better and stronger, with their last decade in first grade being one of their best, reaching four prelims and winning four reserve grade premierships in five years.

    Hardships aside, the Bears have always gone above to support the community and help grow rugby league as a whole.

    During the First World War, attendance for the club was low and the club like many others was struggling, yet an initiative was set up and gate taking were collected and went to the ‘Belgium Fund’ war effort.

    In the ’30s during the Great Depression, despite significant decline in finances, they continued to meet all their financial obligations as a club while continuing to fundraise for the districts unemployed. In WW2, again the Bears took a lead in helping fundraise for various donations, and North Sydney Oval was even used by the National Emergency Services.

    The Bears also have a history of going outside of their own domain to help grow the game for the greater good. In 1926 North’s Paddy Boland helped expand RL to rural NSW. As mentioned earlier in 1946, Norths voted in favour of their catchment area splitting to set up Manly. In 1994 the Bears also set up a twin club in Fiji that still exists today – the Fiji Army Bears, they provided financial support and kit, as well as provided additional support through coaching equipment and personnel.

    A lot of other clubs can also indirectly thank the Bears for their main sources of income. In 1951, North Sydney Member of Parliament and avid Bears supporter Jim Geraghty, spearheaded a royal commission into the liquor industry which resulted in recommendations that sporting and non-sporting clubs should be the recipients of new liquor licenses. This spurned in the birth of Leagues clubs, ensuring increased finances and the growth of rugby league as a whole.

    While the Bears haven’t tasted many premierships, the club was not without its successes. The Bears won a number of other titles including City Cups and the Challenge Cup. They remained undefeated at home for three consecutive years in the 60s, between 89-93 they won four reserve grade titles in five years and countless legends and household names have donned the red and black since its inception.

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    But on-field success doesn’t define the club and Bears fans know that. They stand for so much more. Despite a ‘bear’ trophy cabinet and almost 20 years away from the NRL, those on the North Shore still would rather not follow a team than pull on the maroon and white of their neighbours.

    The Bears over their history have made a number of choices, sure they are a club that have always strived for success and survival and their 91 years in the top tier is a testament to that – but it becomes evident that the choices that were made always had an ethical backing, they chose never to trample over others to get that success.

    They are a club that always oozed loyalty and character and never sold their soul for a title. The fans knew that and to this day they pay that loyalty back in turn.

    They also know deep down that the Bears will not be in hibernation forever. Whether or not that is misguided faith or whether or not it will be on the Gold Coast time will tell.

    I do understand that Gold Coast fans have reservations about an outside entity coming in to buy their club. It makes sense, I’d feel the same. But it history is any barometer, then if the Bears are successful, all signs point to the fact they will do everything they can to make rugby league thrive on the Gold Coast.

    No club can guarantee on-field success, but what the Gold Coast could expect is a club that embraces the community and a club that any fan can truly be proud of. The Bears mascot has also been part of the GC league community since 1935 in their Burleigh, but whether or not they are ready to see that moniker represent them on the national stage is yet to be seen.

    All I know is if it happens, the GC would be lucky to have them.