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Time for the NRL to expand and grow the game

Peter Beattie. (AAP Image/Jane Dempster)
Roar Guru
20th March, 2018
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2789 Reads

NRL expansion has gained plenty of momentum since new ARL Commission Chairman Peter Beattie publicly stated that it was back on the agenda.

Beattie believes the NRL must grow in order to survive, with the potential of introducing two extra clubs by 2022 to coincide with the new TV rights deal.

Currently, the A-League covers more territory across Australia since its inception just 14 years ago and they’ve been relatively successful on the broader scale geographically, in markets where the NRL doesn’t exist.

The NRL have also been defenceless as the AFL made inroads into rugby league heartland – the AFL remaining the benchmark in relation to expansion.

The first question to be answered in regards to expansion is if there is enough player talent to sustain an 18-team competition?

During the ARL-Super League split 21 years ago, there was a combined total of 22 teams, there was a plethora of players who simply weren’t good enough for the top grades, and talent was not evenly spread.

The NRL must create and nurture more quality talent, capable of playing at first-grade level, in order to sustain two new teams. It’s been confirmed that both states will run their own U-20s competitions, replacing the national U-20s competition, so there will be a healthy amount of talent coming through the lower grade ranks. The responsibility lies with the NRL, QRL and NSWRL to ensure players have clear pathways to first grade.

By 2022, the NRL should expand in rugby league heartland areas on the NSW Central Coast and the Ipswich-Logan Corridor (west of Brisbane), as well as seeing two Sydney teams relocating to the non-rugby league cities of Perth and Adelaide.

I’ll reserve my opinion on which teams should relocate, but the reality is, no Sydney team turns over a profit and the game as a whole in the city has stagnated badly.

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Andrew Fifita Cronulla Sharks NRL Rugby League 2017

AAP Image/Joe Castro

It would be logical for a team like the Cronulla Sharks, who according to Roy Morgan research conducted by Fox Sports have the lowest number of fans of all the Sydney clubs, and are based in an area with a population of only 200,000.

To continue using Cronulla as an example, they should look to relocate to Perth, with a population of 2.5 million, or Adelaide, with a population of 1.5 million, and have either the entire West Coast or South Australia all to themselves. They would keep their loyal fans from the Shire and gain hundreds of thousands of new followers.

A relocated team in Perth would benefit from thousands of additional club memberships, endless corporate sponsorship opportunities as a standalone rugby league club based in a capital city, the golden opportunity to take advantage of Rugby AU’s decision to scrap the Western Force Super Rugby franchise, and the ability to grow the game in AFL heartland – including the potential recruitment of AFL juniors.

Given the time difference, the majority of their home games should be ‘family friendly’ afternoon-twighlight times, which would air during prime time in the eastern states. Their home ground would likely be the rectangular, 20,500 seat capacity nib Stadium or the WACA.

In 1995-96, the Western Reds were the best-performing expansion team, averaging home crowds of 13,000 – more than most Sydney teams – but were eventually victims of the Super League war, in which they were forced to pay for flights and accommodation of visiting clubs, inevitably sending the club broke.

Perth recently drew a crowd of almost 40,000 for the Round 1 double-header at the new Optus Stadium. From 2013 to 2016, NRL matches taken to Perth, including a Test match, have averaged crowds of more than 20,000.

Fans outside Optus Stadium

Fans flock to Optus Stadium during its first event. (Image: Ryan Buckland)

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Relocating to Adelaide offers the same opportunities in relation to corporate sponsorships, memberships and growing the game in AFL heartland. The home ground would be the Adelaide Oval or Coopers Stadium.

In 1997, the Adelaide Rams averaged home crowds of 15,000, including the fourth highest crowd – 27,435 – that season. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough talent to assemble a competitive roster and their lack of on-field success led to their demise.

The NRL have taken three games to Adelaide since 2010, with a crowd average of 14,000. The Roosters head back to Adelaide Oval in June, after they drew a crowd of 21,000 last season against the Storm. The NRL will be taking a State of Origin game to the Adelaide Oval in 2020, which they’d expect to be a sell-out.

Should the NRL expand to Perth and Adelaide, it would be vital to also expand reserve grade feeder clubs to these cities as well, via the QRL or NSWRL state competitions, which would also boost opportunities for lower grade players aspiring to make it to the NRL.

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As for the NSW Central Coast, resurrecting the (North Sydney) Bears would be the logical option, as they already have a loyal fan-base, the advantage of securing corporate sponsorship, they’d be located 75km up the M1 from their traditional home and – being a foundation club – bring tradition.

The Central Coast currently have 23 junior clubs and over 7000 players participating in rugby league at all levels. Central Coast Stadium, with a capacity of over 20,000, usually comes close to selling out every time the NRL has taken a game there over the past dozen years.

As for Ipswich and Logan, the corridor has a combined population of over 500,000 and is expanding rapidly. They have thousands of juniors, existing QRL reserve grade clubs, and corporate sponsorship opportunities which could potentially expand into Brisbane.

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The only problem is the area doesn’t have a stadium, but would base itself out of Suncorp Stadium, which is roughly 30 minutes away, until a venue is built.

However, the Ipswich train line takes fans directly to Suncorp Stadium so it definitely is not a major problem.

Ipswich and Logan deserve their own team more than a second Brisbane team, which would also dilute the Broncos’ brand – the most profitable club in the NRL. Also, Brisbane contains thousands of Ipswich and Logan expats who would switch allegiances from the Broncos.

It’s important to note that expansion is at least four years away, giving the NRL plenty of time to establish itself in Perth and Adelaide. However, the ARL Commission needs to make the decision on where to expand and relocate as soon as possible, giving new clubs and relocating Sydney clubs enough time to establish their brands, as well as sufficient time to assemble a competitive roster.

The NRL could then look at expanding to Papua New Guinea, creating a second New Zealand team, going to the Pacific Islands and adopt the NFL structure, splitting the competition into two separate conferences, or the possibility of the QRL and NSWRL state competitions merging to create a promotion and relegation system.