One of the most polarizing subjects in rugby league in recent times has been expansion and the need to relocate Sydney clubs.
Everyone has an opinion, but they’re usually subjective and without consideration of proper analysis.
The ARL Commission has tasked NRL CEO Todd Greenberg and his team to assess viable expansion and relocation options over the next 12 months, so it’s expected to raise many talking points throughout 2019.
Greenberg recently dismissed the notion of relocating Sydney teams, preferring to ensure all current 16 clubs are sustainable and with the possible addition of new teams across the competition.
However, one club who may not be sustainable for much longer is the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks.
The past decade has been particularly difficult for the Sutherland Shire based club, despite experiencing on-field success.
In 2009, the NRL refused a proposal from Cronulla to move five of their home games over five seasons to the Central Coast as they were haemorrhaging money on games at Shark Park due to poor crowds. At the time, the NRL offered $8 million for a Sydney club to fully relocate to the Central Coast, however, the Sharks rejected the move.
The disaster that was the 2013-14 season again left Cronulla on the brink of collapse, with the club fined $150k for salary cap breaches as well as $1 million ($400K suspended) for the infamous “doping scandal” which also resulted in coach Shane Flanagan suspended for 12 months.
It was estimated the 17-month ASADA investigation cost Cronulla upwards of $4 million from fines, legal costs and other lost revenue.
Just two years after their maiden premiership, Cronulla are again experiencing financial hardship, with an estimated $6 million loss over the last two seasons despite property development deals and grants from the NRL.
To make matters worse, major jersey sponsor Opal Solar along with two other jersey sponsors decided to part ways with the club by not taking up an option for 2019, so Cronulla are now currently without major sponsors and without a front-of-jersey sponsor, merchandise sales are also affected.
The club has been forced to make changes to their business structure which included laying off ten staff members and making further cost cuts to save money. But with an impending salary cap investigation hanging over the club, which they self-reported to the NRL regarding anomalies from the 2015 season and earlier, they may get hit with another fine should the NRL prove the Sharks breached the salary cap.
Unfortunately for Cronulla, the salary cap investigation allegedly uncovered evidence that coach Shane Flanagan defied an edict not to contact players or club officials during his 12-month suspension following the doping scandal in 2014.
If evidence suggests Flanagan broke the terms of his suspension, he will likely be slapped with another ban and the $400,000 suspended from their $1 million fine from 2014, may be triggered which would be yet another financial blow for the club.
To add to Cronulla’s decade of woes, controversy has continuously followed the club in regards to off-field indiscretions from high profile players, including the abuse of a junior referee, unpleasant photos of a player leaked online, recreational drug use and expletive-laden rants on a podcast, leading to players being sacked or punished.
The Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks brand has taken so many hits over the past decade, and there has never been a better time for the club and its supporters to consider a fresh start and a new image.
Relocation has always been talked about as an option for Cronulla each time they’ve come close to financial ruin, but this time they really need to consider the option to secure the club’s long-term future.
The logical option for Cronulla is to relocate to Perth. They would become a stand-alone club based in a capital city with a population of 2.2 million compared to Sutherland Shire of 218,000.
According to Roy Morgan research, the Sharks have the third-least amount of supporters (224,000)and the second-least amount of members this past season (15,800) of all the Sydney based clubs.
They’d have the potential of gaining hundreds of thousands of new supporters, thousands of additional memberships, endless corporate sponsorship opportunities and the advantage of the ARU’s decision to scrap the Western Force. Everything a congested Sydney market is unable to offer.
They would likely play at the 20,500 capacity NIB Stadium, which is close to the CBD.
The time difference between the west and east coast would mean home games would predominately be played during family-friendly timeslots on Saturday and Sunday afternoons-early evenings, which would be televised during primetime on the east coast.
Many are of the belief that Perth deserves their own team and their own identity rather than a relocated Sydney club, which fans out west may not buy into or are of the belief that a relocated Sydney club wouldn’t be successful for various reasons.
However, West Coast Pirates bid team and NRLWA CEO John Sackson has previously stated that he’d be open to a relocated Sydney team as fans on the west coast have been crying out for rugby league for over 20 years since the Western Reds fell victim to the super league establishment war.
It would also potentially save the bid team at least two years to assemble a playing squad and having to market a new brand.
For relocation to work, Cronulla need not look any further than the success of the Sydney Swans AFL side. Relocated from South Melbourne, they have become the most supported AFL club with 1.2 million fans, according to Roy Morgan research.
The Swans membership numbers finished with around 60,000 this past season, with more than 12,000 of those from Melbourne, so you’d believe Sharks supporters from the Shire will remain loyal to their club should they relocate.
The success of the Melbourne Storm (1.05 million fans, 25,000 members) also proves that rugby league can make inroads in AFL territory.
Perth is obviously not as big as Sydney or Melbourne, but the blueprints of the Swans and Storm have clearly worked extremely well.
Although Todd Greenberg has been emphatic in his refusal to bail out struggling clubs, he should consider offering Cronulla a financial incentive to help with the costs of relocating the club and it’s players to Perth because relocation would also be beneficial to the NRL.
Expanding and growing the game on the west coast will move the ‘National’ Rugby League away from being east coast centric and enter new markets.
Not only does the “West Coast Sharks” have a nice ring to it, there are plenty of great white sharks off the coast of west coast, so it would be a perfect fit.