Yesterday I published an article on rugby league stadiums, and suggested that teams should combine their efforts to build a few good stadiums to reduce costs and provide better facilities for players and fans alike.
What I neglected to mention, however, as that these things will probably never happen.
With so few clubs having strong private financial backing, and a culture of rampant tribalism where suggesting teams share facilities induces fits of fan rage, it would be extremely difficult to implement despite the significant practical benefits.
This leads into my second suggestion on how to fix rugby league – and this will definitely make people angry.
The NRL needs to either relocate teams, or to reduce them. Now obviously building a bunch of stadiums and moving teams around are largely mutually exclusive exercises, so these would be considered as independent options, rather than parallel efforts.
The fact is that Sydney has too many teams. The city’s population, combined with fierce competition from two quality AFL sides and a football-mad West (forget the Waratahs, let’s be real – rugby union is dying), make the ceiling for the growth of rugby league in the area far lower than if the competition was more spread out over the nation.
So here is my second proposal: a 14-team competition where everyone plays each other twice, with the League reverting to a top six.
The Titans are removed from the competition, because we all know that the Gold Coast is where sports teams go to die. With the Sharks in perpetual financial trouble, they are prime candidates to either be relegated to the NSW Cup, or merge with the Dragons to become a Shire/Illawarra regional team.
As previously mentioned, the Tigers move out to Campbelltown permanently. With the Macarthur region to have an estimated half a million people in 25 years’ time, they can afford to have their own team.
With Parramatta’s new ground, the Roosters being the NRL’s glam club and the Rabbitohs going through enough for the last 20 years (and being a founding club), these teams can remain where they are. Penrith also has an entire region to itself, so it’s fine.
This leaves Manly and the Bulldogs, one of whom would go to Brisbane to balance the market with the Broncos, and one would head to Perth, where there are no major rugby clubs of either code – and where more than 38,000 people turned up for the double header at the beginning of last season.
The hunger is there in both cities.
“But these clubs have so much history and should never leave Sydney. They’re MY club,” I hear you say.
Well, times have changed. The competition is no longer amateur and the game is too big. Teams have grown well and truly beyond their local suburbs, and are competing in a saturated market.
Something has to give, and either the game will plateau or teams have to leave to create some room to breathe.
Look at South Melbourne, or the Fitzroy Lions in the AFL. Both had long, though not so pretty, histories and they left Melbourne in extremely ugly and painful fashion.
Look at them now, though, with secure fan-bases and multiple premierships between them. They are images of merging and relocation done right.
Unfortunately, in a rugby league culture so resistant to change and that clings to a glorious past, the game risks withering away into oblivion if nothing is done. It will not be pretty, but is completely necessary to ensure the survival of the game.
The next article in this series will also be about the financial state of the game and how the NRL needs to stop selling its soul to Channel Nine and betting companies.