Rugby League supremo Peter V’landys has been strongly supportive of NRL expansion and his preference is that the 17th NRL team be located in south-east Queensland.
The current TV rights deal runs through to the end of 2022, so the following year would presumably signal the arrival of the next expansion team and rugby league games at Suncorp Stadium every weekend throughout the 2023 season.
That time frame represents a monumental challenge for the formation of a successful entity. In January 2023 players will be returning to preseason training following a short Christmas break. Therefore, in less than two years, the 17th team needs to establish a brand from scratch, establish an administrative base, establish a training base, build a football department, build an off-field team and sell sponsorships and memberships, and then there’s the small matter of a hopefully successful roster.
Of course they’ll also be tasked with competing directly with the off-field juggernaut that is the Brisbane Broncos because, make no mistake, while they are coming off a calamitous year on the field, the Broncos remain a financial behemoth among their NRL rivals and have plenty of ammunition to keep the future newcomer under their proverbial thumb.
If indeed the league is expanding in greater Brisbane within what must be acknowledged is a remarkably narrow timeframe, with the greatest of respect to Port Moresby, the Central Coast Bears, the Perth Pirates and possibly a second New Zealand team, we’re left with only four candidates.
There are two prospective new outfits: the Brisbane Bombers and an unnamed Western Corridor bid taking in Ipswich and as far West as Toowoomba.
We also have a further two clubs currently running around in the Queensland Cup: Easts Tigers (to be known as the Brisbane Firehawks) and the Redcliffe Dolphins.
The Brisbane Bombers have been talking themselves up as a future NRL outfit seemingly since Lang Park had concrete seating. Interestingly, the Bombers recently announced they’ve identified Cam Munster as their key recruitment target for their opening season. We only need to go back seven years and the very same Brisbane Bombers were talking up their plans to run out both Sonny Bill Williams and Quade Cooper during their inaugural season.
Unfortunately, while it seems they’re good at hyperbole, the Bombers seem to have little going for them beyond a logo and a marketing strategy that seeks to target the ABTB (anyone but the Broncos) portion of the Brisbane market.
To be fair, they’re a little further ahead of the Western Corridor team at this stage, with the prospective outfit’s current bid tied together with little more than grand aspirations. That may be a little unfair to a region that could only be described as Queensland rugby league heartland, an area linked by Darren Lockyer Way and one that boasts a booming population and growing commercial sector. Indeed there are plenty of good arguments supporting a Western Corridor expansion bid, yet their entry into the NRL will surely be more feasible in a future round of expansion.
When considering expansion, irrespective of the timeframe, the question should be asked: does the NRL want to entrust their brand and the game to a brand-new entity that will be tasked with building a professional rugby league club from scratch?
Let’s go back and consider the previous examples of NRL expansion in the south-east Queensland market. In 1995, after a long courtship, the South Queensland Crushers entered the then ARL ready to give the Brisbane Broncos a run for their money. Three years later, with home crowds averaging 7000 and two straight wooden spoons, they were wound up with debts of $3 million and plenty of player wages unpaid.
In fairness, the Super League war had a lot to do with their demise, but they were well off the pace both on and off the field.
An hour south, the Gold Coast Titans entered the NRL with much fanfare in 2007. They too were a new entity led by an energetic local consortium, and despite being initially competitive on the field, they were in voluntary administration eight years later. They’re still hanging on but continue to prop up the bottom of the table in terms of membership and corporate support.
Again it’s worth highlighting that the new team will be up against a corporate giant in NRL terms that will be determined to defend their patch.
So if we can politely draw a line through the Bombers and the unnamed Western Corridor team, that leaves two contenders.
At this point we need to consider just what’s been learnt over the past year. The 2020 season and year in general threw a curveball to the league and demonstrated that NRL clubs need to be able to survive with reduced match day income and smaller leagues club grants and in an environment where sponsors are taking a stricter view of where to spend their marketing dollars.
It’s also fair to say the NRL won’t be underwriting the new entity with the same financial largesse as the AFL have shown to the Suns and Giants in recent years. In fact it’s reasonable to expect that the business case and related revenue assumptions put forward by the new entity will be rigorously scrutinised and will need to demonstrate sustainability through a future season not unlike the one we’ve just seen.
Importantly, this is where the arguments in favour of the Tigers and Firehawks start to wane. While they’ve been talking up their plans to represent Brisbane’s south side, a counterpoint to the Broncos’ northern presence, the simple fact is their current home ground lies little more than a decent jog from the Broncos’ Red Hill base, putting them squarely in the crosshairs of their established rival. Indeed if the NRL is seeking to genuinely increase their south-east Queensland footprint, with a population of 3.6 million, by a third, it makes little sense to have two of those entities in such proximity.
Furthermore, while the Tigers boast strong traditions and plenty of grassroots support, they simply cannot compete with the Redcliffe Dolphins in terms of financial preparedness. In fact with assets in excess of $100 million the Dolphins boast a balance sheet that would put the majority of existing clubs to shame. Those include a 40,000-plus member leagues club, a shopping centre, a leisure centre and an 11,000-seat stadium that will host Brisbane Roar home games in 2021.
The Dolphins NRL franchise would represent the heartland of Moreton Bay Regional Council, the third-largest local council in Australia, boasting a population of close to 500,000 and lying immediately to the north of Brisbane. What really secures Redcliffe at the top of the pile is their close ties to the local community, their long history of investment in junior rugby league and their significant history in developing and building a non-rugby league business – the sort of business that can support the costs associated with putting a quality NRL outfit on the ground.
Furthermore, the franchise representing the north of greater Brisbane and the wider Moreton Bay region would provide a nice counterpoint to the established Brisbane Broncos and the Gold Coast entity to the south.
The choice is simple for the NRL. Do they gamble on a new entity catching lightning in a bottle from day one? Do they want to position a second franchise that would rival the Rabbitohs and Roosters as near neighbours? Or do they place their faith in an entity that already owns the infrastructure to support an NRL team, that is associated with an established brand and that has a financial footprint that would already be the envy of the league?
If indeed expansion is the way forward, there really is only one answer.