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

Eden Roar Rookie

By Eden, Eden is a Roar Rookie


175 Have your say

    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.

    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?

    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
    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.

    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.

    The New South Wales State of Origin team for the 2018 series remains a mystery, with new coach Brad Fittler facing plenty of selection headaches. So we want you to tell us - and all your mates - who should start for Blues in Game 1 with our team picker.

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    The Crowd Says (175)

    • August 9th 2017 @ 4:38am
      matt jones said | August 9th 2017 @ 4:38am | ! Report

      not financially viable. plus if it was obvious that another city was going to be a bigger team than an existing team in sydney than they would have already gone there.

      Why are sydney teams targeted and not Canberra? Canberra is no bigger than any of the Sydney clubs and historically draw poor crowds. Are the 300k people in the ACT protected in front of the 300k in Manly because it looks better on a map?

      • August 9th 2017 @ 7:37am
        Luke said | August 9th 2017 @ 7:37am | ! Report

        Canberra’s population recently hit 400k and is booming, surrounding areas like the south coast and Riverina also call Canberra they’re team. Our crowds are bigger then most Sydney teams

        • August 9th 2017 @ 7:42pm
          Matt Jones said | August 9th 2017 @ 7:42pm | ! Report

          Luke, please check the last 5 years crowd history and Canberra is close to last
          It’s not booming
          Sydney has 5 million – divide that by 9 and send me your answer

      • August 9th 2017 @ 10:58am
        matth said | August 9th 2017 @ 10:58am | ! Report

        Well, with promotion and relegation no one is protected. Canberra could go down just as easily as Manly, or the Broncos for that matter. And that is the kicker for the competition as it stands. Could the TV deals and infrastructure be sustained if the Broncos have a shocker and go down? No top flight Rugby League in Brisbane at all? Or we lose the ground we’ve made in Melbourne, or lose NQ? These are the risks and they would have to be accepted because in a promotion relegation system you can’t be half pregnant – no teams can be guaranteed a place.

        Also if (say) the Broncos and Bulldogs or South Sydney went down, there may well be a break away competition faster than you can say Murdoch.

        I can’t see the existing clubs ever agreeing to the possibility of relegation. It’s just not in their self interest.

        • August 9th 2017 @ 12:13pm
          Fix the scrums said | August 9th 2017 @ 12:13pm | ! Report

          Don’t know about relegation. Imagine the Titans dropping down and the AFL getting a free kick if the Suns get their act together. The AFL are discussing 2 more teams, 1 in Tasmania and possibly 1 in Canberra. You wouldn’t want the Raiders to get relegated if that happens.
          A lot of the ideas look okay on paper but in reality the NRL can’t afford too much tampering with the current system. Plus looking forward to the next broadcast deal, the media landscape will have changed. There may not be as much money next time.
          Agreed that they have to increase the value of the product. That’s why a lot of focus is placed on origin. Which is unfortunate for the club competition that appears to be struggling.
          I would simply start by taking a team out of Sydney and give Brisbane a second side. Build from there.

        • Roar Guru

          August 9th 2017 @ 1:21pm
          Rellum said | August 9th 2017 @ 1:21pm | ! Report

          I would rather promotion relegation be more region based. So for Brissy you could have all of the old BRL teams lining up to see who makes the top few teams to represent the mighty area of Brissy. Wally Lewis had the same line of thought a while back.

          So Brissy would have two or three places in a NRL and the rest of the Brisbane teams go back to the QRL. The bottom placed Brisbane teams then is replaced by the top Brisbane QRL team in the NRL. That way you always have a couple of Brissy teams in the comp at least.

          Same could be done for Sydney and North QLD. Problems of course come in for southern cities like Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide and New Zealand. Maybe they could be incorporated into the Sydney southern region or the QRL,

          The bonus with this idea is that the PNG hunters of North Sydney bears could make a come back, the problem is of course the logistics of it all, poorly funded, supported and structured clubs could make it one year. You could have restrictions based on the viability measures of each club. Most of the teams will not have a home ground up to scratch so many would play out of Lang Park, also players might just migrate to which ever team is promoted. Personally I can’t imagine more than three or four teams being capable of getting to an NRL standard of the field so they would always be the teams in the comp but at least with promotion and relegation other teams would have a chance.

          I would love to see it happen,

      • August 9th 2017 @ 9:15pm
        Fair Weather said | August 9th 2017 @ 9:15pm | ! Report

        If soccer can do it, then a major sport like league easily could. Problem is the greedy self interests of the current elite clubs.

        Maybe there is legal action that could be taken by a Norths or a Newtown to force the door open.

        Bring on 2nd division NRL.

    • August 9th 2017 @ 4:50am
      Go warriors said | August 9th 2017 @ 4:50am | ! Report

      Good article Eden. I do like your idea. Very similar to the English super league. It allows new teams to enter with the goal of making the top league like what the Toronto Wolfpack are doing. They could not do what they are doing through the Australian system.

      It would also be good to have teams from PNG, Perth, Brisbane2 and NZ2 as they are all raring to go. The big negative is though the second division just does not attract crowds.

      Based on this year the dogs and bunnies would be relegated. It would be sad to see two very proud clubs with huge fan bases who have very recently played in a GF play in a small stadium in front of 2000 with very little interest.

      • August 9th 2017 @ 7:00am
        NaBUru38 said | August 9th 2017 @ 7:00am | ! Report

        Big football teams have played in second division. Rangers, River Plate, Independiente, most Braqilian teams. If the team is sgrong enough, attendance dips a little, but not catastrophically.

      • August 9th 2017 @ 11:02am
        matth said | August 9th 2017 @ 11:02am | ! Report

        Actually based on this year the Knights and Tigers would be relegated. Two large rugby league heartlands.

        • Roar Guru

          August 9th 2017 @ 2:12pm
          Rellum said | August 9th 2017 @ 2:12pm | ! Report

          But they could be replaced in theory by two other strong RL heartlands in a Brisbane, Ipswich team, Cairns or Rocky. Small towns but big support.

          • Roar Guru

            August 10th 2017 @ 9:12am
            The Barry said | August 10th 2017 @ 9:12am | ! Report

            But do they already watch and support NRL in Cairns and Rockhampton?

            What NEW revenue do they bring the NRL to justify the expense of getting them into the NRL?

            I know this sounds negative and I have nothing against Cairns or Rockhampton having teams, but this is the reality. It’s about the money. It’s not about the feel good concept of giving a rugby league team to every passionate rugby league community. Which I agree would be fantastic, but just not viable.

            • Roar Rookie

              August 10th 2017 @ 9:20am
              Bunney said | August 10th 2017 @ 9:20am | ! Report

              I have a problem with Rockhampton having a team. There is zero chance the Town can support an NRL team.

              Grew up there, have family there, and find it laughable that some people think it could work. Simply not enough people. A decent crowd of 20,000 would require a more than a full quarter of the population rock up. And the best footy ground has ~5000 capacity with very little chance of being significantly upgraded due to its location.

    • August 9th 2017 @ 5:48am
      lesterlike said | August 9th 2017 @ 5:48am | ! Report

      Off course it could and should happen. English Super League can figure it out with a teams from France and Canada across multiple tiers, along with the Challenge Cup and it’s run on a shoe string. Don’t give me the not financially viable nonsense when Australian Rugby League can bring in Billions in TV rights alone.

      A 2nd division was never even considered because administrators were lazy and just wanted to follow the American franchise system instead of looking to Rugby League examples like in the UK.

      Instead we are trying to cram in a 100 year old Sydney comp tradition along with expansion into new markets into 16-18 measly spots which has left the NRL hamstrung.

      With a two tier system, Rugby League here would have ridden out the Super League war far better without all the mess and be better placed to handle new teams from new areas.

      No stupid mergers or relocation’s would have been needed. Teams that struggled with the new order would have found their place in the second tier. North Sydney fans would still have their team, the Gong wouldn’t have had their side stolen by the Dragons and West Suberbs and Balmain wouldn’t have been forced into a dumb merger that no one likes.

      Plus we would be far better placed to expand into new areas without telling another Sydney club “Sorry but you aren’t important to Rugby League anymore so you’re losing your team.” That’s how North Sydney was finally lost to Union, AFL and Football and yet people have to be told again and again that relocation and mergers are a disaster for the code.

      • Roar Guru

        August 9th 2017 @ 2:13pm
        Rellum said | August 9th 2017 @ 2:13pm | ! Report

        Yes, agree with all that.

      • August 9th 2017 @ 7:44pm
        Matt Jones said | August 9th 2017 @ 7:44pm | ! Report

        Because the English league is soooo successful

        • August 10th 2017 @ 3:15am
          lesterlike said | August 10th 2017 @ 3:15am | ! Report

          No stupid mergers, no kicking clubs out, better atmosphere, expanding the game in new areas and maintaining fixture integrity whilst .

          Yes Super League has had a hell of a lot more success with a much smaller market size. Meanwhile the NRL with all their millions watch as the league stagnates and encourage clubs to play in front of dull empty mega stadiums.

    • August 9th 2017 @ 6:38am
      Gurudoright said | August 9th 2017 @ 6:38am | ! Report

      A two team promotion and relegation is massive in a 12 team comp, even in a 16 team comp.

      • August 9th 2017 @ 11:03am
        matth said | August 9th 2017 @ 11:03am | ! Report

        Fair point, if this was brought in it might have to be only 1, or 1 plus a play off for the second.

    • Roar Guru

      August 9th 2017 @ 7:08am
      Michael Keeffe said | August 9th 2017 @ 7:08am | ! Report

      Hmmm…. I’ve heard a lot of ideas previously about promotion and relegation, but never one so well thought out. You’ve also recognized that there is the potential for problems with the system as well rather than just looking with rose coloured glasses. In principle I like the idea and you’ve laid out some very valid arguements. I don’t know enough to know if it is sustainable but I imagine a problem would be if somehow the Broncos, Bulldogs, Rabbitohs and Eels were all in the second tier at once how much it might damage tv ratings and the overall game because of their large fan bases. Also knowing the self interest that runs deep in rugby league I think clubs would be rioting before they let a commission bring this in.

    • August 9th 2017 @ 7:10am
      Larry Kearney said | August 9th 2017 @ 7:10am | ! Report

      If you are going to copy the EPL, then do away with the finals, as they have, and just have 16 home games and 16 away games. The 16 home games will always be sold out. Top team at the end of the year wins. Every 2ND year, the bottom team is relegated to be replaced by a top team from the NSW Cup or QLD cup.
      One weekend of Tests and only TWO Wednesday night state of origins.
      Players from U/20’s must be used in two special rounds each year.
      Also, if you look at the EPL, they play THREE rounds per week around Christmas/New Year. New NRL comp starts mid March and finishes 3rd week October. Cheers,Larry

      • August 9th 2017 @ 4:03pm
        Jim said | August 9th 2017 @ 4:03pm | ! Report

        The EPL never had finals in the first place – was always a league.

      • August 9th 2017 @ 7:46pm
        Matt Jones said | August 9th 2017 @ 7:46pm | ! Report

        EPL and nearly every other football league in the world has never had play offs or finals