The topic of expansion has heated up again, with Channel Nine bullish about scrapping a Sydney team for a second Brisbane team, and the Manly Sea Eagles again find themselves in the firing line.
Major issues including financial troubles, lack of resources and an outdated stadium have been well documented, and Manly could be forced to meet certain criteria to avoid being the club tapped on the shoulder by the NRL before the next broadcast deal.
If Manly were punted or forced to relocate, it would cause a huge geographical problem for the NRL, as they would be unrepresented from the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Newcastle, which would leave the door wide open for the AFL and A-League to swoop on a very large chuck of rugby league heartland.
Since the North Sydney Bears were banished from the NRL after the ill-fated merger with Manly (forming the Northern Eagles) in 2002, the Upper and Lower North Shore and Northern Suburbs have gone unrepresented at NRL level and tens of thousands of fans were lost.
Manly would be well served by broadening the appeal of the club outside of its traditional supporter base on the Northern Beaches. There is no chance of North Sydney re-entering the NRL at their old base, so it would be logical for Manly to be more proactive in inheriting vacant Bears territory.
In 2018, New South Wales Origin coach Brad Fittler called for Manly to merge with the North Sydney Bears for a second time and create a behemoth club, which could work with the right administration, but the failures of the Northern Eagles would likely turn off a lot of fans and Manly can do it on their own with the right business model.
Club owner Scott Penn has previously discussed improving Manly’s relationship with the North Shore and eying off the Central Coast. However, the club’s membership numbers have stagnated in recent years, which suggests they haven’t made a significant imprint on these areas.
They took 16 home games to the Central Coast between 2007 and 2015 and attracted decent crowds. But since then, their lack of commitment to the region has seen the Sydney Roosters swoop in and strengthen their ties to the Central Coast.
Manly are the only professional sporting team based in the northern regions. They have a strong junior base, an excellent coach and are back to winning games of footy. It’s time for the club to piece together the rest of the blueprint for long-term sustained success.
Earlier this year, the club announced state government funding for a $36 million state-of-the-art centre of excellence at Brookvale Oval to be completed by mid-2021, which will also include a 3000-seat undercover grandstand.
It’s a massive boost for the club. Brookvale Oval has been unsuitable for NRL fixtures for the past several years, with outdated seating, accessibility, safety issues and poor player facilities.
But despite the upgrades and centre of excellence, it’s important for Manly to take at least one pre-season trial match and one regular season home fixture to the Central Coast, make a connection with the community and junior footy clubs, form corporate partnerships with local businesses, wrestle back some lost ground from the Roosters and leave a strong footprint in the region.
The Bears have unsuccessfully tried to be readmitted into the NRL, with a failed bid based on the Central Coast and attempting to buy the Gold Coast Titans. However, if they were to be successful in a different location in the near future, they would look to retain the North Shore as part of their territory, so Manly need to get in and make the region their own while the Bears’ NRL bid is still dead.
The North Shore and Northern Suburbs are big business regions, meaning big sponsorship and corporate partnership potential.
Actively participating in promotional, community and development work in these regions would help grow the club’s supporter base.
Converting bitter old diehard Bears fans might be nigh-on-impossible, and there would be a perception that the North Shore and Northern Suburbs will never accept Manly, but it’s been 17 years since the fallout of the Northern Eagles split and the bitter rivalry between the Bears and Sea Eagles has been dead for 20 years. It’s time to let bygones be bygones.
There’s an entire generation of young fans from these regions without local NRL representation and Manly is the only club that can prevent the death of top-flight rugby league north of the Harbour Bridge.
Another move that would likely upset Manly fans would be a necessary name change.
In order to encompass and incorporate the Upper and Lower North Shore, Northern Suburbs and the Central Coast and ensure the inclusivity of all fans in these regions, it would be logical to change the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles to the Northern Sea Eagles or the North Sydney Sea Eagles.
It’s important for Manly to grow in order to survive and they have an opportunity to be a behemoth club representing an area with a combined population of over 1.5 million people.
All they have to do is look, plan and expand beyond the Northern Beaches.