It was March 1995. Rugby league boldly marched into Perth and Auckland, announced it had arrived and put the other football codes on notice. The ARL has executed one of the most successful marketing campaigns in Australian sport, underpinning the game’s rise in popularity.
Back in those days there was far more talk in the media from administrators and journalists alike about expansion and the big picture instead of endless debate about referee calls and interpretations of rules of today’s media coverage. The debates were about how many teams the ARL premiership should have and how the number of teams could be drastically reduced in Sydney to make expansion of the competition work.
Fast forward to 2019 and mainstream media commentators and journalists shut down calls for expansion. The likes of Paul Gallen and Matthew Johns line up to tell us why expansion won’t work, why it can’t happen. The failure of the Gold Coast Titans certainly adds fuel to these sentiments.
While the AFL have brilliantly executed an expansion blueprint north of the Murray River over a 30-year period, rugby league has lived from season to season. To Peter Beattie and Todd Greenberg’s credit, they are trying to put expansion on the agenda. However, they have danced around the issue. A bold plan of action has not been offered up, only words and endorsements of support for bringing more NRL to Brisbane and back to Perth.
The problem Beattie and Greenberg face is that expansion offers just as many opportunities as it does problems. Expansion means more teams. More teams means more elite-level players are required and the consensus is that there is simply not enough NRL standard players for more than 16 teams. Nobody wants to go back to the days of the 1990s where 60-point blowouts with 22 teams were the norm.
For expansion to work a reduction in the number of Sydney teams must happen. It is non-negotiable. For many fans, commentators, former players, current players and administrators alike, that is simply unpalatable. The NRL remembers all too well what happened the last time they tried that – thousands of protesters called for South Sydney’s reinstatement.
When someone like Paul Gallen comments on expansion, deep down he surely knows it means a reduction in Sydney clubs and is therefore a threat to his beloved Cronulla Sharks. The Sharks would be first to go, probably followed closely by Wests Tigers.
Herein lies rugby league’s dilemma. Brisbane want more NRL action. Perth wants a slice of the pie. The TV audience for the NRL in New Zealand is approaching one million and the audience demographic is young people under 40. Port Moresby keeps knocking on the door, awaiting an answer. Fiji is entering the NSWRL competition. There are immense opportunities for the game. They all want in on the action, and who could blame them? Rugby league is an outstanding product.
Nevertheless, today’s NRL has essentially spawned from a Sydney-centric competition where the Sydney clubs and their supporters have a sense of entitlement and ownership of the game. No administrator in their right mind would dare announce the culling of three Sydney teams to make way for teams in Perth, West Brisbane and southern New Zealand. A mob would be set upon the NRL administration if that ever happened. Rugby league would be back in the courts and in the headlines for all of the wrong reasons.
With all due respect to some of the Sydney clubs and their supporters, the suburbs of Cronulla, Manly and Campbelltown are the equivalent of Whitechapel Road – unimportant real estate in the context of rugby league.
Perth and Southern New Zealand are the equivalent of Park Lane. A second team in Brisbane is Mayfair, notwithstanding the enormous potential for NRL teams in Papua New Guinea and Fiji down the track.
So how does rugby league go about all of this? Wait for Sydney teams to fall over or to merge? The former may happen in time, the latter is very unlikely.
The time has come for some uncomfortable and painful conversations. Too much is at stake for the NRL to sit on its hands and whistle Dixie. While the AFL is executing its big-picture plan that sees its posts stretch from Fremantle to Bondi, rugby league is preoccupied with pleasing everyone in suburban Sydney.
Sooner or later the NRL must make some tough decisions in the game’s best interests, present a bold vision and brazenly use the dirty ‘E’ word.
But how do they do this?
Well, if I had the answer to that, I would be a millionaire!