Apart from a 90-metre intercept try in the dying minutes to win the game, nothing seems to quite get an NRL fans heart racing quite like the topic of expansion.
We all want to see the game not just survive, but grow, in an increasingly competitive sporting market. With AFL and A-League stronger than ever in the Sydney market, it might seem strange then that the answer is to reduce the number of Sydney teams.
Consider this your warning, what you will find below may be deeply offending to fans of certain clubs, and downright heresy to rugby league traditionalists, but could it be a long-term workable solution?
Growth: Expand or relocate?
If we agree that the game needs to grow, then we are hit with the question of how. Do we have the talent to support an additional two teams?
The answer from those who know the game the best, the players, seems to be no. Whether this is true or not is the subject of another debate for another day, so for the sake of this article let’s assume this is true and there is not 60 extra top-grade players we can dig up over the next few years.
The other issue with moving to an 18-team competition, is that although we get an extra game to sell, we also have an extra game to pay for.
There are questions over whether adding an extra game each week into the schedule would actually increase the value of the next broadcast deal, considering the extra costs to put that game on, especially if these teams were based in new markets that don’t have existing rugby league infrastructure to support it.
So if the competition doesn’t expand, do I think teams should relocate? In short, no. I don’t believe any new market would accept a relocated club, especially if a Sydney team were to be moved to Brisbane.
Instead, I believe if we want this great game to survive and grow, we must introduce brand new teams in new markets, while reducing the number of Sydney teams.
In saying that, a team on the chopping block should be given the option to relocate, if they can prove to the NRL they have a strong business model showing that the relocation will result in a successful club, and not another failed team.
Who is safe and who is at risk? First of all I think it is clear that all of the teams outside of Sydney are safe. If teams are to forced out of the NRL, it will be one of those from the crowded Sydney market.
So to look at what clubs are at risk, let’s first of all look at a key statistic that the NRL would surely take into account – how many paying members does the team have?
At the end of the day, the NRL must remain a profitable business, so it cannot risk kicking out a club like the Souths and risk losing all those paying members.
South Sydney Rabbitohs 30947
Parramatta Eels 23890
Penrith Panthers 19585
St George Illawarra Dragons 18681
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 18667
Wests Tigers 15502
Sydney Roosters 15393
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 14227
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 12635
*Membership average 2014-2018
As we can see in the above, there is a vast difference in membership numbers between the top and bottom Sydney clubs, and it is no surprise the clubs at the bottom are those that are most often mentioned when relocation comes up.
The Tigers, Roosters, Sharks, and Manly simply have fewer people willing to pay to support them, and this is the first mark against their names.
However paying members are only a part of the wider fan-base of an NRL team. In fact, as the majority of the NRL’s money comes from eyes-on-screens rather than bums-on-seats, it’s fair to say that the more supporters a team has, the more people will watch their games, and the less likely that they will be removed.
Getting an accurate measurement of how many supporters a team has is difficult, but below I have used the best way I can think of- Facebook likes. Simply, the more supporters a team have, the more likes that teams Facebook page should have.
South Sydney Rabbitohs 426000
Parramatta Eels 315000
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 282000
Wests Tigers 236000
Sydney Roosters 228000
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 185000
St George Illawarra Dragons 181000
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 168000
Penrith Panthers 156000
*NRL teams by Facebook likes
Some trends are starting to emerge about which teams are on the top and which are on the bottom. The very topic of this article is expansion however, and this must also include the ever-expanding Sydney population.
This expansion is happening in the western and south-western suburbs, so we should expect (and the NRL should ensure) the clubs based in Western Sydney remain strong and grow with the Sydney population.
This means teams like the Panthers, Bulldogs and even Tigers are safe, despite their troubles over the last few years.
The Eels and Souths appear to be too well supported, which leave us with four Sydney clubs that are mainly based out of regions that have for the most part already reached their population growth potential.
This means, if these teams want new fans, they will need to start looking outside of their traditional areas.
The teams I am talking about are Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, Sydney Roosters, and St George Illawarra Dragons.
A crazy scheme or a possible solution?
How does the NRL introduce new teams while keeping a 16-team competition? The answer is they need to free up some licences, but simply kicking teams out of the competition runs the risk of losing fans to the game forever.
Especially with AFL and A-League breathing down the NRL’s neck, they cannot have entire regions of Sydney going unrepresented. But neither can they expect loyal Sharks fans to start suddenly supporting the Dragons.
The answer, I believe, is to start by splitting up the Red V, and re-merge them with the Souths and Sharks.
One of the key issues with the number of teams in Sydney, is that there are three teams that lay claim to ‘Southern Sydney’, an area that for the most part that strongly supports rugby league, but has run out of new fans in the area.
While the west still has room to grow, the south does not. To fix this issue, the NRL should do now what it should have done back during Super League.
Instead of the St George Dragons and Illawarra Steelers being merged, ignoring the Cronulla Sharks stuck in the middle of them, the Cronulla Sharks should merge with the Steelers, becoming the South Coast Sharks.
Primarily an out of Sydney team, they would focus on and truly represent the Wollongong and south coast, while still servicing the shire and keeping its fans and junior players happy under the Sharks name.
Whilst this certainly won’t please many fans, it is better in my opinion than relocation or removal. There is a rivalry between the Sharks and Dragons, but I believe for most of those in the Shire, there is not as much hatred for those to the south than those to the north.
I would expect home games to be split between Shark Park and WIN stadium, which could also result in better home ground attendance numbers since the Shire and Wollongong are that little bit closer to each other than Kogarah is.
The combined side would become far more powerful than the individual Sharks or Steelers ever were, creating a strong, well-supported side that would last for as long as rugby league exists in Australia.
The other side to this is the St George Dragons. The area they represent is surrounded on all sides, but their strongest neighbour would be Souths. The Dragons are by no means a weak club, they have strong brand image and rich history, however, in my opinion, a merger with the Souths is needed to free up an NRL licence.
The combined team would still represent South Sydney, but now go as far south as the Georges River. The name would show this, while still capturing the strong branding of Kogarah based side by becoming the South Sydney Dragons.
Fans of both could still support the Dragons and Souths, but now this would be two names for the same team. The result would be easily the most well-supported side, wiping away the competition in number of memberships. This powerhouse team would truly and undeniably be the Pride of the League.
This would free up one licence to allocate as the NRL saw fit, likely to a new Queensland-based side. They would be backed by juniors, existing NRL fans and potential sponsors.
However, I do not think it would be long until the expansion conversation returned again, and it would again be Sydney teams in the firing line, as there would be seven teams still based in Sydney (Tigers, Panthers, Bulldogs, Eels, Manly, Roosters and South Sydney Dragons).
The next two clubs at risk would have to be the Sydney Roosters and Manly Sea Eagles. Both represent relatively small regions, that are extremely limited in terms of population growth potential, and therefore new fans in the area.
Both clubs appear to be slowing in terms of supporter growth, as the people in their area move towards other codes as their main following.
There is also the issues around lack of junior development and poor quality grounds that have been known for some time. Now while these issues aren’t unsolvable by any means, I believe the NRL should pressure these clubs to fix them, or else face the consequences.
This isn’t to say the clubs have any control over their regions population growth, but making an effort to find out of Sydney support in new areas, for example, could help to ensure their safety, while providing the NRL with all those extra eyes-on-screen they want.
If the Roosters were to invest in the Perth market, establish a junior development program there and build support for rugby league, they could save themselves from relocation or removal.
Increasing junior participation in rugby league in Perth and creating stronger pathways for these juniors into the NRL, could potentially create enough of the extra top-grade players required for an 18-team competition in the future and removing the need to sacrifice Sydney teams to achieve this.
If they refused or failed, however, the NRL would then need to look to replace them with a new team, likely based in Perth. Whilst the Roosters have a strong history as a part of rugby league in Australia, the game cannot grow with new players, and cannot support a team that does not produce any players.
In saying this, I cannot see the Roosters being removed or relocated while Uncle Nick is in charge. He simply has too much influence in the NRL and among the supporters and sponsors of the NRL.
He also does appear to do a good job at running the club, compared to some of the other Sydney based sides and their well-reported management issues. However, Nick is currently 77 years old and is not going to be running the show at Bondi forever, and we must question what the effect will be on the Roosters once he is gone.
Will they still be able to draw in as many sponsors, players and supporters without him, or will the Roosters fall into mismanagement, the same way other clubs have struggled with for years now?
Manly, on the other hand, do have a stronger junior development program, but their issues lie with the number of supporters, which reduces the value of their brand, and the ability for the club to stay financially stable.
If Manly cannot resolve their finances, and do cannot increase their supporter base across the Northern Sydney region, then the NRL may be forced to replace them with a team that would be stronger, both in terms of their bank account and supporters.
However, the massive Northern Sydney region cannot go unrepresented, but luckily we have another option for this region should Manly fail to fix their issues.
Yes, I am talking about bringing back the Bears.
The North Sydney Bears currently have 14,000 fans on their Facebook page, quite high for a team not in the top grade for the last 20 years.
This shows there is still quite a few supporters, and the number of actual supporters would skyrocket if they came back. Of course the Bears couldn’t be restricted to just North Sydney. Instead, they would have to represent all of Northern Sydney, and the Central Coast.
The Gosford-Northern Sydney Bears would represent a massive area of rugby league heartland, an area that for long has struggled to identify with the Manly Sea Eagles or indeed any other team.
Bringing the Bears back into the competition, now with a mandate from the NRL to represent a much larger area, would prove far more successful than Manly currently is, because the Bears would know only too well what happens should they fail.
Plus, who wouldn’t watch the Bears Round 1 game back in the NRL? This would surely be one of the highest rating regular season games in the NRL’s history.
2nd Brisbane Team
Gold Coast Titans
Gosford-Northern Sydney Bears
North Queensland Cowboys
New Zealand Warriors
South Coast Sharks
South Sydney Dragons
*Suggested new NRL teams
With the above changes, the NRL wouldn’t risk diluting the quality of playing talent, would minimise the risk of losing supporters to the game, and would build stronger junior development and support by ensuring more regions are being represented by a top-grade team.
The new competition would be better structured to build more support and more involvement, opening the door for further growth and expansion into new markets again, making rugby league the undisputed Australian sport of choice as it deserves.
So is this a stupid, crazy idea, or do you think it might just work?