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Opinion

Development, expansion and professionalism: Let's be honest about the future of rugby league

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Roar Rookie
29th August, 2021
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1173 Reads

Full disclosure is probably required here: I’m not really a huge league fan. I watch it, sure, I have a team (go Storm), and I was going to become a member before the pandemic hit.

However, it’s not my love. If you hadn’t already guessed, I’m a diehard AFL fan and probably worst of all, I call league ‘rugby’ in normal conversation. But I am fascinated by league, the history is intriguing, the rivalries are convoluted and old, and the fans are out of their minds in the best way possible.

I look at league as an outsider with no real love and no malice, just bemused confusion at how out of touch it is. From the outside looking in, the NRL needs to expand, further professionalise, and controversially come to terms with what I see as the most likely future for the league.

Expansion
It’s a hot topic in the NRL now, even I can see that and is starting strong with a second team in Brisbane being planned. Although, why they’re not building a new team from the ground up is beyond me and I assume has something to do with the lack of a draft system, plus a need for established juniors but it seems regressive to me.

It’s a good start but the reason they’re putting another team up there is because of the AFL, not because they’ve planned out the future of expansion or think Brisbane can sustain a new club. And with no sign of an 18th club on the horizon, it’s dubious how much extra revenue this team will add to the NRL’s books, especially to justify the $13 million a year they’ll be getting from the NRL.

It just feels reactionary as if the NRL never considered that they would want to expand until just this year.
Which is weird, because even in Melbourne we have heard about plans for expansion in the NRL for at least the last five years but now it just sounds more like media punditry than any real proposals going on internally at the NRL.

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Fans need to get realistic about where the game can expand.

The rate of participation of Pacific Islanders in your sport is something to be proud of, but If I see one more person say you need teams in the Pacific when the World Bank says the Pacific has “2.3 million people, scattered across an area equivalent to 15 per cent of the globe’s surface”, I might give up on any hope for this sport.

Logistics and wealth are important and denying that is asking for a situation like the Toronto Wolfpack to happen in the NRL.

London Broncos defeat Toronto Raptors to make it back into the Super League.

(Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The NRL seriously needs to start looking at building a club from the ground up in Perth and make the game national, and leave the Sydney sides in Sydney. The new entity must be its own club with no other baggage and try to grow the game rather than just rest on their laurels.

This will help the league grow and protect the game which should always be their goal as custodians of the game.

Professionalism
I would never claim to be an expert on how professionalism affected rugby league but what I have been able to learn tells me it was messy, damaging to many clubs, cost the fans an established league, and most upsettingly of all, involved Rupert Murdoch (yes, I know about his involvement in the Storm).

However, I do not think the game did enough to professionalise the support structures of the league and the clubs themselves.

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Firstly, junior development should be taken out of the hands of the clubs. Yes, they need a reserve side but that’s about it. The NRL or the ARLC or both should invest heavily in youth development rather than have the clubs do it. They can’t be both a professional sports team and a youth group.

I know community outreach is important and a team being involved locally with sport gives everyone a warm feeling, but the cold fact of the matter is that the building that runs out million-dollar men on the weekend has enough to deal with without running a complex feeder league of its own. NRL clubs aren’t, in general, rich enough to make it work.

The community is always going to want to play sport – just give them money to play yours and get a draft for the best of them.

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Also, it is an excellent means to balance the competition. I don’t want to hear the, “They’ll just play union if they can’t play where they live” crowd. Union’s domestic competition is a shambles and you can offer a lot more money in league for all but the international level. There’s a reason the national side gets to be called the Kangaroos and union must settle for the Wallabies. You’re the big dog in this fight – so start acting like it.

Secondly, the ARLC needs to rationalise its corporate structure and start investing in the long-term financial future of the league. I’ve seen countless people praise Peter V’landys for getting the NRL back on the field first of any sport in 2020, and it was a major accomplishment, but why was it so necessary?

Yes, we all wanted to watch sport but the real reason the NRL needed to start playing was because of the absolute failure that the competition’s long-term financial planning has been.

The AFL could afford to be slow the NRL was worried about clubs collapsing and could not. The NRL feels bloated and overly bureaucratic right at the time it cannot afford to be. This isn’t a way for suits to get rich, it’s an important part of our cultural heritage as a nation and should be treated as such.

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League has been kicking the can down the road with fully professionalising since the end of the Super League War and it will doom the competition as it stands currently, unless standards are addressed in administration and governance from the clubs to the Commission.

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The future of league
Much is made of the code war between AFL and NRL but something I don’t think NRL fans are ready for is that the war to the extent that it ever existed is over and league lost. I know I’m biased towards the AFL, but I just can’t see how the NRL will be able to keep the competition at anything resembling parity with its southern rival.

I believe there is plenty of room for both leagues to be popular and profitable in this country, but the NRL will be playing catch up for who knows how long.

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While the AFL looks for a 20th team to add at some point in the future with a 19th Tasmanian team, the NRL is going to spend money it doesn’t have trying to establish a team in Queensland that, while the team itself will doubtlessly be profitable, I don’t really see it as market growth, just giving a city that deserved a second team 20 years ago its due.

Queenslanders will always love their league but it’s not going to be the impenetrable fortress that fans and executives think it is. The NRL is moving heaven and earth fighting a war that the AFL has failed to notice it’s in or that it started. And while that’s the reality, league is doomed to be the second sport in the nation for any foreseeable future.

Take heart, however. This is all fixable. It just will take the type of long-term thinking I’ve never seen in this sport outside of the Storm and even then, that feels like an accident.

Protect your game and help it grow, advocate for fixes to problems and own it because it is truly your game and while we both have our poorly behaved fans, AFL fans do want you to be happy with the game you love, just like we are.

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