The NRL is set to expand to 18 teams, with an undecided second team in Brisbane and an 18th side in another location, also yet to be decided.
But there are also a number of weak teams in Sydney that are often thrown around in discussions for relocations or mergers.
So, let’s have a look at a list of teams in Sydney along with their membership bases.
Parramatta Eels: 30,302
South Sydney Rabbitohs: 30,060
Penrith Panthers: 19,085
Wests Tigers: 18,736
Sydney Roosters: 16,407
St George Dragons: 15,739
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs: 15,475
Sutherland Sharks: 13,680
Manly Sea Eagles: 10,977
The Eels and Rabbitohs are both safe with huge numbers and with expected population growth in Penrith, the Panthers should be able to grow their membership to around the 25,000 mark. The remaining sides are a bit less certain.
Even though they are based in the city, the Roosters have a remarkably poor membership base and this is often seen at their home games with small crowds. But as they effectively share opposite sides of the CBD with the Tigers, I think they could be merged. This would create a team with a combined membership base of 35,000, making them the largest club in the competition. The current situation of the Swans dwarfing the NRL in the main heartland of the code is highly embarrassing to the NRL and can’t be allowed to go on.
The next two teams that could merge are the Dragons and Sharks, as a southern suburbs side.
With a membership base of 15,700, the Dragons aren’t really that impressive and it’s easy to see why a struggling club like them would have to resort to taking matches to Homebush. It’s a similar story with the Sharks who have just 13,700 members following them. But combine the two together into a new side and they’ll have a combined membership of 29,400 which is quite good. As a working title, I’ll call them the Southern Ospreys.
So that’s the Roosters, Tigers, Dragons and Sharks taken care of, but then you’re left with the Bulldogs and Sea Eagles.
The Bulldogs have a membership base of just 15,500, which is nothing special. But if they change their name to the Canterbury-Macarthur Bulldogs and take matches to Campbelltown then they might be able to grow that to around the 20,000 mark or maybe a bit more.
As for the Sea Eagles, things look quite bad with only 10,977 members behind them and the whole Northern Eagles thing was a huge flop. The best thing they could do might be to become the Manly-Darwin Sea Eagles and split matches between both locations, to cover the Northern Territory.
Now for the expansion locations. The NRL are hell-bent on a second Brisbane team, so the only question is where? For a second team to be successful it needs to be tribal, so this is where I’ll focus. The first option is the Brisbane Jets bid, who started out as an Ipswich side before expanding to be a so-called ‘Western Corridor’ bid, before then merging with the Brisbane Bombers bid to eventually call themselves the Brisbane Jets.
The whole sense of tribalism in Ipswich comes from them not being part of Brisbane, so what do they call themselves? The Brisbane Jets. As for the Western Corridor linking people from Ipswich to Toowoomba to Logan, that’s just silly. There’s no real identity or tribalism in this bid. It’s not just a dog’s breakfast, but a dog’s breakfast with pike.
The second option is the Brisbane Firehawks, who grew out of Easts Tigers. They’re trying to build up a north versus south rivalry, but if that’s the case then why don’t they call themselves the South Brisbane Firehawks? In any case, most people in Brisbane say that the north-south rivalry is something that’s more imagined by outsiders than something that’s actually real.
This then takes us to the final option, the Dolphins bid.
Not only are they an existing club with a strong brand and history, but they have their own stadium and a clear identity. They’ll play most of their games at Lang Park, and if they change their name to the Moreton Bay Dolphins they could appeal to an existing eastern or bayside identity on the south side, too. This is probably the best source of tribalism in Brisbane and taps into an east-west rivalry. They also have the option of playing matches in Redcliffe or on the Sunshine Coast.
After a second Brisbane side the NRL should expand to the three biggest markets without teams.
First up it’s Perth, where the West Coast Pirates look like the next team to enter after a second Brisbane side comes in. When the Perth Reds first came onto the national stage their first game attracted a crowd of 24,400 while their average attendance of around 13,000 was better than many Sydney teams. Unfortunately, they were victims of the Super League war and disappeared.
But in 2019 the new Perth Stadium drew a crowd of 60,000 for State of Origin, showing the interest is still there. More importantly, a market of two million people is simply far too big to ignore.
The second-largest market without a team is Adelaide, with a population of 1.3 million people. In their first game in 1997 the Rams drew a crowd of 27,000 which is rather good, while they averaged 15,300 in that season which is comparable to most Sydney sides today. But like the Reds they were victims of the Super League war and haven’t been seen on the national stage since.
A game-changer now though might be the Melbourne Storm who they would have a huge rivalry with, along the lines of the traditional South Australia vs Victoria theme.
Finally there’s Tasmania, which is the third-largest market without a team. Back in 2012, a pre-season match between the Storm and the Broncos drew a crowd of 12,000 which is more than most NRL fans would probably expect. As for TV viewership, State of Origin matches and the NRL grand final draw 40,000 viewers in Tassie. Financially speaking, a Tasmanian team would be viable with only half the subsidies that they have given AFL clubs to play matches there. Think about that.
If the NRL held a magic round in Tasmania with matches in both Hobart and Launceston it should give a good indication of how much potential support there is. As a working title, I’ll call them the Tasmania Tempest, which goes well with the Storm.
With the changes I’ve put forward this will create six teams in Sydney with competitive and comparable membership numbers to the Broncos or the Storm. Although, Manly may be a lost cause and could end up folding as they are eclipsed by the much larger clubs. But there’s no need to push them. It could also be a similar case with the Titans on the Gold Coast who have just 7800 members. If the Titans can’t survive there then maybe they could be relocated to South Brisbane as a third team. The second Brisbane side has the potential to either help the Titans or harm them, but for now I’ll leave them in.
Finally, to wrap things up here’s a list of the teams who would make up the new look NRL:
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Manly-Darwin Sea Eagles
New Zealand Warriors
North Queensland Cowboys
Gold Coast Titans
Morton Bay Dolphins
West Coast Pirates