The introduction of the ARL Indpendent Commission (IC) will certainly change rugby league in Australia forever. While there are plenty of negative aspects to the IC, one significant attribute these successful business-people will bring is a more strategic approach to expansion.
The current leadership – or lack thereof – has eroded to a point where the focus of expansion discussion is on the quality of independent bids currently being proposed by businessmen.
Moreover, these bids, the Central Coast Bears in particular, have been developed in isolation of any strategic intent of the ARL.
This is not to suggest there is not support within the bureaucracy, just that any such support has not been derived from a deliberate strategy on the part of the ARL.
What the ARL IC should deliver is a more deliberate strategy for expanding the NRL, linked to the intent for rugby league grassroots development more broadly. And this strategic thinking will look at the opportunities each market holds and, moreover, will view weaknesses as issues to be overcome, not reasons to avoid expansion into those areas.
Professional sports management in Australia has come a long way since the parochial geographic isolation of the last century. Indeed, a more strategic approach has given soccer a much greater profile and a significantly broader supporter-base since tackling issues such as the ethnic-identity of clubs as well as the geographic spread of the A-League clubs.
While the hardcore supporters preferred the former arrangements, strategic thinking knew changes were required to expand the game further.
Similarly, the AFL hasn’t expanded according to where any independent businessman had a great proposal – they expanded into new areas strategically in order to reduce Melbourne clubs and to take a long-term view in non-traditional areas such as Western Sydney and the Gold Coast.
It is not that the AFL is ignorant to the challenges of establishing a team in a rugby league stronghold, but that they have embraced the challenge as a strategic goal.
The ARU tell a similar story – not focusing on independent proposals, but applying a strategic management approach to expansion into Perth and Melbourne.
The new ARL IC is tipped to include some impressive business minds.
It is not likely that their decisions on expansion will be made without a strategic mindset, and it increasingly unlikely that they will be swayed by polished presentations by independent businessmen peddling their offer if it doesn’t offer the best strategic advantage to the game.
Therefore, the Central Coast Bears bid is far from a done deal.
The backslapping from the current bureaucracy is meaningless as savvy Independent Commissioners will certainly not be convinced to take quick, rash decisions. With the current density of the NRL within two hours drive from the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it is extremely unlikely the Bears bid will tick all their boxes.
For the Central Coast Bears, the question is whether their model, even if perfected, offers enough strategic benefit to rugby league. Certainly, highlighting their North Sydney heritage does not provide them with any advantage in a strategic ARL IC world.
For the ARL IC, the question is how they can quickly establish sound management teams in other geographic locations so that expansion can occur wisely, quickly, and strategically.