Sydney tribalism is best for the future of the game.
Amid all the talk of expansion with the addition of a new team in Brisbane in 2023 followed by a second New Zealand club in the following years, critics of the National Rugby League continue to criticise the competition for its over-reliance on Sydney-based clubs.
Fans intent on expanding the game continue to suggest that the Bulldogs should move to Christchurch, the Sharks and Dragons should merge, and the Wests Tigers should become the West Coast Tigers, forgetting the lessons that were learnt from the Super League war and that still reverberate today.
Rugby league fans need to look no further than the North Sydney Bears, who fell victim to a failed merger with the Manly Sea Eagles and have since been relegated to the NSW Cup. In the process, they have lost their core supporter base with many refusing to watch the NRL and their former grassroots heartland of Sydney’s north shore has become a hotbed for the AFL with the Sydney Swans winning hearts and minds.
Bears fans have effectively stood aside and let the game pass them, instead shifting to other codes like the A-League, AFL and Shute Shield. While the red and black retain a rusted-on supporter base that turn up at North Sydney Oval week in and week out, the NRL has lost a strong brand and a huge area of its heartland in the process.
Sport at its heart is a tribal game, built on rivalries between teams that have built up passion and support over decades. Whether it is New South Wales versus Queensland or South Sydney versus Eastern Suburbs, these rivalries sell tickets and have become some of the biggest events on the rugby league calendar.
If the Wests Tigers moved to Perth, their rivalry with Manly would lose its credibility and the ‘Fibros versus Silvertails’ storyline would be lost to the game. A rivalry with the Adelaide Sharks would not fix that and while a team in a new market might get some eyeballs in the short term, Sydney rugby league has proven to be resilient time and time again.
Rugby union has learnt that exact lesson. The corporatism of Super Rugby that stemmed from the professionalism of rugby union in the late ’90s didn’t help the code, it hindered it.
Matches between the NSW Waratahs and Western Force aren’t nearly as strong as a Shute Shield game between Manly and Warringah. Even in the Shute Shield’s attempts to expand to Western Sydney, the Parramatta Two Blues have been left in the dust and the club lacks any competition because it doesn’t share the same history as Sydney Uni and Eastern Suburbs.
Last week in Europe, football fans were in uproar over the proposal to create their own Super League. The bigger clubs of Real Madrid, Manchester United and Juventus wanted to leave clubs like Atalanta and Eibar behind in pursuit of their own greed and success. But a match between Liverpool and Barcelona won’t draw as much passion as one against Everton. Tribalism breeds excitement, intensity and support.
So why then is football’s Super League relevant to the over-saturation of Sydney rugby league clubs? Despite having so many teams in a city of 4.5 million, the NRL’s nine Sydney clubs remain its strongest with the Parramatta Eels and South Sydney Rabbitohs leading the competition in memberships with over 30,000 each.
While that pales in comparison to the AFL’s juggernauts such as the West Coast Eagles and Richmond Tigers, each with over 100,000 members, the Eels and Rabbitohs still have significantly more members than the Storm and Broncos.
The NRL’s expansion plans will only strengthen Sydney rugby league. As the saying goes, fish where the fish are. Brisbane and New Zealand already have a long history with rugby league and immediately offer a strong business case that Perth and Adelaide lack. They have fans who are passionate about the game. They have fans who play the game at a grassroots level and can help to create rivalries with the Broncos and Warriors respectively.
Regardless of whether the Redcliffe Dolphins, Jagera Jets or Brisbane Firehawks get the go ahead, it will strengthen Queensland rugby league, and the expansion to 18 clubs allows the NRL to split the game into two conferences.
Each conference will hold nine teams. The Arthur Beetson conference will be made up of the Broncos, Raiders, Titans, Storm, Knights, Cowboys, Warriors and expansion teams. And the Clive Churchill conference will be made up of the Bulldogs, Sharks, Sea Eagles, Eels, Panthers, Rabbitohs, Dragons, Roosters and Wests Tigers.
Conferences will help to foster existing rivalries, allowing each team to play each other twice – home and away – within their own conference, and also opens up the possibility for new rivalries to form.
But why will splitting the competition along outdated divisions strengthen the game in Sydney? Every match now carries more weight. It will effectively revive the old NSWRL and guarantees that the biggest ticket games occur twice every year. It also adds more meaning for Sydney clubs because now not only are they competing for a finals position but they are also playing to be Sydney’s best club.
If the competition were split into two conferences, one option would be to have top-four finals series from each conference with one team from each going through to the NRL grand final.
Not only does this mean you get the NRL grand final as the battle between the two best teams in the competition. It now means that the preceding games carry even more weight with only one spot on the line. It effectively gives you three grand finals and the ability to pack out Stadium Australia for a game between the Roosters and Panthers with a trophy up for grabs.
The effect isn’t just felt in September but also throughout the season. Crowd averages will be boosted by having guaranteed events each year.
The Bulldogs would now get to play the Eels, Rabbitohs, Dragons, Roosters and Wests Tigers both home and away, and no longer have to worry about having half of their home games taken up by Thursday night slots in the middle of winter against the Broncos or Storm, attracting small crowds for interstate teams.
Every game now carries more weight. By adopting a conference-based system, the NRL are playing to its strengths. While it may not have a national footprint, the NRL has a parochial supporter base not only in Sydney, but also in Brisbane, regional Queensland and New Zealand.
The NRL can still focus on expanding to Adelaide and Perth in the future but ultimately it is inter-city matches between the Bulldogs and Eels or Broncos and Dolphins that are going to sell more tickets than a game between Perth and Canberra, or Adelaide and North Queensland.
A balance can be created between tradition and expansion, maintaining the heart of the game while still attracting new eyeballs.