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An expansionist ideal: Part 1 – NRL

How about summer rugby league? (AAP/Action Photographics, Colin Whelan)
Roar Guru
20th January, 2018
89
2351 Reads

In 2012, the National Rugby League decided that no expansion would take place until after the 2022 season.

However, since that time there has been little information regarding the criteria for any future expansion. In fact, many within the game continue to argue against expansion.

The arguments against expansion include:

1. Lack of player depth;
2. No expansion should occur until all current teams are financially viable;
3. Lack of central funds

The NRL should hear these reasons, but they should not be the guidelines for which expansion is considered. These arguments can easily be countered.

Firstly, the lack of player depth should not be relevant when a salary cap is in place. If the salary cap is monitored correctly, then the talent should be evenly spread meaning that games should be close-fought contests. Naturally, the importance here is on the monitoring of the cap.

Secondly, the financial viability of teams. From the 2018 season onwards clubs receive 30 per cent above the salary cap. If they can not be sustainable with this, then new management must be implemented within these clubs.

They should all run at a profit now or the very least break-even. The NRL won’t continue to prop clubs up now if they are not performing financially.

Finally, the lack of central funds should not matter. If new teams entered, then the percentage of revenue handed out to the clubs would be split 18/20 ways instead of the current 16.

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If expansion is what the NRL wants then clubs and players must realise that it may mean that future salary caps do not rise as much as they like if at all, or in fact may go down a little. No doubt you think pigs will fly before the NRL and clubs allow that to happen. Regardless, I’m still hoping for the best.

Since the arguments against expansion can be countered, the arguments that follow are based on how many teams should be included and where these teams should be located. There is a wide range of views regarding expansion bids.

Do we expand into non-traditional markets or consolidate rugby league strongholds? These opinions, although valid, miss the primary factor that should be key – value.

Konrad Hurrell scores in front of a ground record crowd during the Round 17 NRL match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the New Zealand Warriors at NIB Stadium in Perth

Rugby league in Perth (AAP/Action Photographics, Colin Whelan)

The value includes the clubs sustainability, membership, junior links and fan support as well as corporate support. Ultimately, the value indicates whether the club can add to the competition or subtracts from the competition.

So let’s analyse the different bids that have expressed interest over the years and see if they would add value or not the competition.

In the South-East there has been a range of bids. The Brisbane Bombers, Brothers Leprechauns, Western Corridor, and Redcliffe. Naturally, only one of these proposals would be successful.

The positives for a Brisbane team are many. Brisbane is the third largest city in Australia. A game each week in Brisbane makes sense for broadcasters.

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This additional game could mean that Brisbane might get the much desired Sunday afternoon game. The corporate support would be there. Not all the major companies can sponsor the Broncos, having another team allows the option for big business to support another team.

Fan support shouldn’t be a problem, although they wouldn’t be as big as the Broncos. However, if they were successful over time, then eventually it is possible that they might rival the Broncos.

The negative is that the area is an over-crowded sports market. The Gold Coast Titans are struggling and possibly so would any new team in the south-east. Fair point I suppose. Also, it has is argued that a second team would dilute the Brisbane fan-base rather than add to it.

Overall, I feel the positives do outweigh the negatives, and a Brisbane bid would enhance the competition. So what about the individual bids? Who should progress?

The Brisbane Bombers were advised to enter a team into the Queensland Cup. They refused arguing that a new identity was needed to combat the Broncos brand. They indicated that putting a team in the Q-Cup would remove the freshness of their brand. It’s the NRL or nothing for this bid. All of their home games would play out of Suncorp Stadium.

The Leprechauns were formally in some fashion part of the old Brisbane Rugby League. They have Leagues clubs all over the state and have a vast amount of support at their disposal. Although, the Ipswich branch of the Leprechauns is supporting the Western Corridor bid, they indicated that they would play 6-8 games out of Suncorp and the remaining 4-6 games in regional areas of Queensland.

In essence, the Western Corridor Bid is an Ipswich Jets bid. Some games would be played at Suncorp, but long term they would be hoping to be based out of Ipswich. They have an excellent junior base in a growing area.

Fan support is limited due to the club’s current placing in the Q-Cup. I’m sceptical if this support would increase enough to support an NRL level team.

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Redcliffe Dolphins – A progressive club based on the very northern edges of greater Brisbane. Games would play out of Suncorp. However, they may struggle with fans as other people of Brisbane might not follow a Q-Cup team similar to the situation for the Western Corridor bid team.

Personally, I feel the Brisbane Bombers offers the most. It is fresh and new and would be in fact a Brisbane team. The Ipswich and Redcliffe teams should remain in the Q-Cup where I feel they add the most value. Although many argue against the expansion of the Q-Cup, it would be good to see the Brothers club re-join this competition – if financially viable.

Therefore, if we take the Brisbane Bombers bid to be the best bid for the South-East, then we can pool it with other bids – Central Coast Bears, Central Queensland, Papua New Guinea, Wellington N.Z and Perth. I don’t think any Adelaide franchise have expressed an interest, so I have not included them in this list.

Papua New Guinea Hunters

(Supplied)

The Central Coast is the ninth largest region in Australia. Not only that, by continuing the brand of the Bears it keeps the history of the North Sydney club active at the elite level. It reconnects fans that have been lost to the game.

The Central Coast and North Sydney regions provide the fan support that every club needs. The corporate support may be lacking in the Central Coast region, but it certainly is not lacking in the North Sydney area. Central Coast Stadium would host most season games while North Sydney Oval could host friendlies.

This bid brings a feel-good factor back to the game similar to when South Sydney was readmitted into the competition. Curious to see how viable the club would be long term though. I like this bid.

Central Queensland is home to roughly 230,000 people. The bid team indicate that 450,000 people live within a 3.5-hour drive to where games would be played.

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They also claim that if a bid would be successful, then the government would assist in the building of a stadium. Despite being in a rugby league heartland, one wonders if they could get the crowds needed to support an NRL team. I feel it may struggle.

The West Coast Pirates based out of the fourth largest city in Perth makes a lot of sense. It opens a new market concerning fans and corporate support. It provides the game and broadcasters with another timeslot. The critical indicator would be sustainability. If the front office was well run, then this club should be a success. I like this bid.

Wellington could be another option for the game. The club offers New Zealand fans another team to support other than the Warriors. It provides the code with another time-slot for broadcasters. It would have a city to itself – not counting the rugby union Hurricanes.

Fan support might be an issue. Not a large number of people from Wellington have attended games in the past. Remember all the empty seats for the New Zealand and Fiji quarter-final at the World Cup. One bid group did suggest they would play games in Hamilton and in the Pacific to gain more support.

Peta Hiku New Zealand Rugby League World Cup 2017

(NRLPhotos/Nathan Hopkins)

I feel that this proposal has more potential then Central Queensland, however, at the moment the bid still seems in its infancy. Ideally, if a team out of Wellington is not in the NRL it then should be participating in the NSW Cup.

The Papua New Guinea Hunters decided to enter into the Q-Cup when the Bombers did not. Getting the fan and corporate support would not be a problem for a team that would represent a nation. I can’t argue too much with this bid other to say that a stadium holding 14,500 is not quite big enough for the NRL competition.

I recognise the atmosphere at the ground would enhance the viewing of the NRL as it did for the World Cup, I am not sure how much a Papua New Guinea team would increase the broadcasting rights value for the sport. Ideally, a team out of Papua New Guinea should continue to participate in the Q-Cup even if an NRL license is granted or not.

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Personally, if it were up to me to decide, I would go for a 20-team NRL competition. I admit to being in the rugby league expansion camp.

Though, I recognise that money is the required ingredient and in all likelihood, no expansion will occur in 2023 or if it did, it most likely, would only rise by two to 18 teams.

Regardless, the teams that I would include would be:

17th team – The Brisbane Bombers
18th team – The West Coast Pirates
19th team – The Central Coast Bears
20th team – Wellington, with PNG a close second.

In future, to obtain an Adelaide team, I would look to offer money to a Sydney team to relocate. Clubs would have to want to move. I wouldn’t force any club to relocate as this would only alienate more fans. A move to Adelaide however, would allow for the NRL footprint to expand into a truly national competition.

Obviously, many don’t see the need for expansion. Also, fans see club greed as a stoppage to the growth of the game. These views are well justified. I note that this outline is merely an opinion based purely on a hypothetical outcome.

Regardless, I do hope to see the game expand and I think in the future if the game is adequately managed then 20 teams could survive and thrive in a national competition.

Naturally, all of this is my opinion. Do you think the NRL should expand in 2023?

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If the NRL decided to expand the competition in 2023 and beyond, how many teams should be added and where do you think clubs should be located?