The current events at the Gold Coast Titans National Rugby League club – with the resignation of its coach and founding-CEO and executive director of football – illustrate that there is something fundamentally wrong with the current business model used in many professional team sports in Australia.
The original justification for re-entering this market was that there was strong support from the local community for a new NRL team.
This was demonstrated on a number of occasions by a range of ‘exhibition’ games that were strongly supported by rugby league fans over a number of years.
At the time we were lead to believe that the Michael Searle-led consortium had developed and submitted one of the best business plans seen by the NRL, with clear evidence that there was strong support from both the community and business for a new team on the Gold Coast.
All of this clearly means nothing now and demonstrates that there is far more to setting up a professional rugby league team than having fans turn up to some one-off matches in a market starved of live NRL. The Gold Coast has been a grave yard for professional sport and history could well repeat itself.
Fast-forward to the events of the past few months. The current review of the Titans smacks of a club in crisis without the necessary expertise and staff to conduct their own analysis of its operation. Surely CEO Graham Annesley has been there long enough to have a strong sense of where the problems lie for the club.
The decision to appoint an outside consultant seems questionable. Surely a professional sporting organisation with an annual turnover of between $15-30 million should have staff that have the expertise to address the kind of problems being experienced at the Titans. If not, then perhaps that is part of the problem.
Fans only see a team that is not performing to their expectations and so the normal target for their frustration is the coach – the NRL is replete with examples of coaches being the sacrificial lamb to satisfy the fans’ cries for change.
For example Graham Murray and Ricky Stuart both enjoyed success while coaches at the Sydney Roosters, but both had their contracts terminated early in spite taking the team to NRL grand finals, and in Stuart’s case three, winning one.
Fans don’t think too deeply about these things, they just want their team to win games and give them something to feel proud to be associated with. Something that they can have a sense of attachment to and that they can identify with.
When their disappointment is expressed loudly enough it prompts management to react, usually by sacking the coach and claiming that they are responding to the fans’ demands for change. This acts like a pressure valve releasing but possibly only masking over the extent of the problems.
The bigger issue is whether the Gold Coast is a market that can even sustain a professional rugby league team over the long term. Simply being Australia’s sixth biggest city is clearly not enough.
Residents of the Gold Coast have plenty of leisure options and while having access to high quality rugby league may be appealing the truth may be that the game sits low on the list of things they are prepared to spend their disposable income on.
Attending games with a family is not a cheap entertainment option and if you happen to live outside the Gold Coast there is the added cost of time, fuel and the hassle of parking.
Of course, not being successful on the pitch is always a problem but there are plenty of examples of professional sport teams that have not been that successful but have enjoyed phenomenal community support.
Conversely there have been teams that have been successful but with limited support. It’s a complex issue with no clear road map to follow that will guarantee success.
In defence of John Cartwright, it’s always easy for the arm chair experts to be critical of a team’s performance when they don’t have to deal with the reality of the situation.
Earlier this season the Titans were sitting at the top of the NRL but Cartwright then had to deal with major disruptions to his playing roster. There’s no doubt that if he had the squad that some of the top eight teams currently have at their disposal, the Titans would be far better placed and no review would be asked for.
Cartwright must rightly be wondering where it all started going wrong. Is he somehow a worse coach now than he was back in the early part of the season? It seems unlikely.
A key characteristic of some successful teams is stability within their coaching ranks. Sir Alex Ferguson spent 26 years at Manchester United but it took five years before his first League title.
Similarly Wayne Bennett spent 21 years at the Broncos and also took five years to win his first title with a team brimming with internationals. Instability causes fans to doubt the longevity of their team and whether it is worth investing the time, money and emotion into supporting it.
In no other career would a staff member’s performance be viewed so simplistically. Does the average footy fan reading about their team in the sport section of their favourite newspaper say that they could do a better job than the journalists writing these stories?
In any other career Cartwright would still have a job but not in the cut-throat world of professional rugby league where expectations are often unrealistic. The reality is that in a two-team game there will always be one loser and one winner.
In a 16-team competition there will ultimately be 15 losers and just one winner. Basing a professional sport team’s business model on winning is fraught with danger and is far too simplistic. Fans want and expect more from their sport entertainment experience.
Dr Rudi Meir spent eight seasons as the original Gold Coast-Tweed Giants, and then Gold Coast Seagulls, strength and conditioning coach. He has since worked as a coaching and sport marketing consultant to clubs such as the Wigan Warriors and Leeds Rhinos and also a number of professional rugby union teams in a range of countries. He has completed a PhD that examined the tribalism in rugby league and rugby union fans in both the UK and Australia.