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Why the NRL's plan for a 17th team looks more like exploitation than expansion

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Expert
26th August, 2021
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As the NRL considers three applications to be the 17th team, I’ve been given cause to contemplate the ‘rise of the club’ in our sport over the last 25 years.

Beware: I’m going to mention ‘the book’ again. As I read through the final manuscript for Two Tribes and make a few calls to tidy things up, it’s reinforcing to me how ridiculously chaotic things were between 1995 and 1999. It was like a gigantic natural disaster causing reshaping landscapes that erosion and tectonic plates would have taken millennia to impact upon.

Where a club was during those few years, and the decisions its bosses made, were more important to its history than generations of effort and decisions before or since. Then things settled down again and now we have progress and change proceeding at a glacial pace once more.

The accelerant back then, of course, was moolah; the flood of money caused by the introduction of pay television to Australia.

In 1997, clubs were considered expendable. In Two Tribes, South Sydney’s Shannon Donato recalls how players had to take turns picking up rubbish before training at Redfern Oval because there was no-one else to do it.

If a team could not pay its bills, it was reasonable to assume that it might drop out of the competition or be forced to merge. South Sydney were only what they are now – this gleaming institution – to their fans. To others, they were a broken down inner-city footy club.

We didn’t understand IP and branding the way we do now and the past didn’t have the same sort of lustre it developed as we made the transition from part time to full-time, pre-internet to internet age.

Only a couple of games a week were on TV, so the colours and iconography of the teams were not enshrined in popular culture as they are today.

Having scrambled onto the lifeboat for the turn of the century, leaving others drowning below them, the existing NRL clubs have since enjoyed unprecedented riches at a time when continuous long-term intellectual property has sky rocketed in value with the advent of social media.

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If the clubs don’t like the ‘independent’ commission, they can keep voting members off until they get the ones they do like.

The loss of clubs like Souths and North Sydney has also led us to give them a lot more respect, with the return of the Rabbitohs adding to this perception that clubs should be untouchable. And the location of the team has become so much less important. We can follow Penrith without having ever driven along Mulgoa Road.

It was so important for the sport in 1995 to have a national footprint. Now, if people in Perth want to watch rugby league they can look at their smartphones. The ritual of going to the game is rarely examined in any detail because it’s not really a ritual.

All of this will make it unbelievably tough for the next team to put on the old South Queensland Crushers boxing gloves and step into the ring with the Brisbane Broncos.

The brand names of the existing clubs, and the attached power, have become so big that a new team will take decades to catch up in the marketplace. At least if the new team is in a new city, it has some clear air to work in.

In Brisbane just to wring a bit more juice out of an over-ripe orange? Finding the PR sweet-spot will require the likes of Cambridge Analytica or or Russian troll factory if the public are to be manipulated correctly into feeling an emotional attachment.

While the AFL discusses moving to Tasmania – and the clubs resist – rugby league contemplates its answer to Port Adelaide or Freo… again. It’s definitely not expansion. It’s not even reclamation.

In truth, it’s exploitation.

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