For years now, rugby league trainspotters – such as myself – have been decrying the singed-earth impact of State of Origin on the rest of the sport.
The decimated club competition, the poor-relation international scene, the publicity and sponsorship wasteland this time of year, the changing demographics of the NRL, the apparent disregard for fans who don’t live in one of two Australian states… All that.
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But it’s now abundantly apparent that even if the number of players eligible for Origin gets down to City-Country levels, with blokes being plucked from reserve grade, it will still pretty much stop Australia three times a year.
It’s that big; it’s like the Melbourne Cup.
It’s bigger than the sport that happens to be played when it’s on.
So instead of fighting Origin and predicting its demise, where can we take it so it makes even more money for the sport in Australia? It’s an enormous cash cow as is, but could it be bigger?
The NRL have hit upon one goldmine by selling off games to Perth and Adelaide. Throw in Auckland and Melbourne, and these are the cities with the most money to spend and most fans to attract by hosting Origin. It’s a firecracker in the economic engine of the city where it’s held.
Ideas like Singapore or London (or going back to Long Beach, California!) sound glamorous but how many hotel beds will these cities sell, justifying a big financial offer, in comparison to Australasian centres? There are only three games – we’re probably not there yet in terms of these cities being interested enough.
Origin has the same problem as an ageing rock band that attracts lots of money from an equally ageing but wealthy fan-base – the limited availability of the actual performers. Just when Jon Bon Jovi can earn the most money, he’s struggling to sing.
Likewise, our players are being pulled in all directions. Will we one day have dedicated Origin players, loaned out to clubs to keep them fit?
If I put on my hard rock and heavy metal hat, I can point to KISS talking about touring with no original members, Foreigner doing just that, and Ronnie James Dio being represented by a hologram on account of being dead.
Origin players are employed by someone else, which makes their money-making potential finite and requires promoters to get creative to squeeze more juice out of the lemon in their absence.
There are a few ways to do this.
One is other versions of Origin. The women’s Origin is already an event in its own right and may have outgrown North Sydney Oval and only playing one game.
The Under-20s Origin was played as part of the Pacific Test festival for a few years (this is where most of us first heard of Matt Lodge) but it’s subsided into the background a little.
Trying to push other Origin games into the mainstream gives the NSW and Queensland rugby leagues more sponsorship inventory to flog off without calling on NRL players to do more. Beach Origin in January anyone? Origin-branded darts and hopscotch?
Of course, one of actual Origin’s great appeals is the scarcity of the product and that is best not meddled with too much.
When a punch-up from the 1993 Hull KR versus Queensland game appeared on social media recently, people were stunned the match ever occurred. I remember it well; I taped the highlights off Rex Mossop’s Sports World.
By the way, it was players from the Queensland comp only – no Sydney stars.
NSW toured New Zealand in the late 1970s too, a fact I remember from Malcolm Andrews’ seminal series of encyclopedias on the game. But interstate football before 1980 is almost entirely forgotten these days.
Anyway, as the 1997 Super League Tri-Series showed, expanding Origin just ruins its mystique. Part of the magic is that this is a competition with just two teams. It’s almost like a fable.
But does that mean there aren’t things that can be done to extend the brand beyond six weeks of the year? No.
We already have these heavily promoted ‘camps’, which give the sponsors valuable air time without anyone getting a worse injury than a hangover (hopefully, if security does its job).
Why not bring in a second tier of state-based rivalry? It’s not as if the game can’t afford it. Western Australia versus Northern Territory, Victoria versus South Australia, using a mix of NRL players from those states passing on their knowledge and experience to local amateurs – which is what we see in many international teams.
These could start off as curtain-raisers and become events in their own right.
If we get a Nines circuit up and running with specialist players, the Maroons and Blues could extend their public shelflife by taking part – along with the other states. “NSW Blues win Rotterdam Nines” has a nice ring to it.
The TV rights could be split up, although the conventional wisdom is that they’re worth more together. As TV rights dip, that conventional wisdom might change.
An NRL Summer League using fringe players – like the NBA Summer League – could also involve states instead of clubs to further grow the IP of the state leagues, with modified-rules matches held in non-league states during the off-season
Origin is not my favourite thing but I will be watching in a bar tomorrow. It’s a powerful advert for our sport, even for people who couldn’t find either state on a map.
Instead of grumbling about it, it’s probably a better idea to make good use of it.