Expansion has long been a dirty word in rugby league… just look at the lack of it since the NRL kicked off.
Come to think of it, since 1998, the NRL has presided over completely the opposite by pulling out of key markets, most notably Sydney’s south-west, the Gold Coast and Adelaide.
That’s right. The Western Suburbs Magpies, once permanently headquartered at Campbelltown, the Chargers and the Rams all vanished from the top tier. In the case of the Chargers and Rams, gone altogether – just like the South Queensland Crushers and Perth’s Western Reds, although we can’t blame the suits at Moore Park for that, given these two clubs had the undertaker called in before that first unified season after the game’s bitter split.
The NRL would probably like you to believe they’ve at least expanded into Victoria but the Melbourne Storm was actually a creation of Super League. For the record, the Storm were born in 1997 when I was calling rugby league in the UK while back home, we had those two rival competitions, financed by media moguls Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer. Yep, heady days indeed and still a sore point for many fans who became alienated along the way.
Personally, I especially lament the loss of the Reds. Not because they were embarrassed by the Sheffield Eagles in Super League’s World Club Challenge on a Sunday afternoon in England’s famed steel city but because of what Western Australia brought to our game in a commercial sense, delivering a perfect TV timeslot every fortnight for product-hungry broadcasters whose role is central to the game’s expansion and sustainability.
We saw that only a few months ago when New Zealand’s Sky TV, my former employer, upped their NRL investment by a staggering 65per cent and that’s with just one NRL team in the country! More on that later.
Right now, we have a 16-team competition confined to Australia’s eastern seaboard, with Auckland bolted on and in their case, not even playing on Kiwi soil for the past two years because of COVID-19. In fact, one wonders when the Warriors will return to the City of Sails, which is surely crying out for rugby league (above the local league) like the rest of the country – made worse by the international game, for the most part, going into hibernation.
To make matters worse, there appears to be no genuine appetite at NRL HQ to bring in any new club from outside its established footprint, even if it would significantly boost broadcast revenue to off-set additional costs.
Admittedly, the NRL is edging closer to a second Brisbane side but that’s not expanding geographically – only numerically. Furthermore, they aren’t even quite sure when that extra team will be brought in and on top of that, which professional sporting competition introduces just one new team at a time? And secondly, how can you be taken seriously as a ‘National’ Rugby League when only half of Australia’s six States are represented?
Compare that to the AFL – not as we know it but with an eye to the future. As I churn out this op-ed, you can bet the AFL, more than ever after its grand final in the west, is seriously evaluating the merits of finally admitting a Tasmanian side to its 18-team competition, especially amid increasing reports of the Tasmanian Government cutting millions of dollars in funding for Hawthorn and North Melbourne – unless the Apple Isle gets its own team.
Although Dubbo is more of a target than Tassie when it comes to NRL expansion, it illustrates the capacity for Australia’s cashed-up indigenous game, now boasting a fair dinkum women’s league, to expand its already powerful coast-to-coast footprint.
That strength was underlined on the last weekend of this year’s AFL home-and-away season when its Saturday night national TV audience on Channel Seven was more than double the NRL’s numbers on Channel Nine.
To make matters worse, the NRL’s heartland took a battering in those ratings, with the AFL on Seven pulling a bigger audience in Brisbane than the Queensland-based NRL on Nine….for the second week in a row!
Although national TV audience numbers are actually confined to the five state capitals, free-to-air TV viewership for the AFL will only get bigger if Tassie comes in alongside a new franchise from the ACT or the Northern Territory – the latter of which cannot be ruled out, given the Top End’s passion for the Sherrin and the possibility of that team encompassing the northern part of the continent. Can you imagine the reaction at the Cowboys?
So with more AFL expansion on the horizon, Super Rugby already introducing new teams representing the Pacific Islands and FIFA’s Women’s World Cup coming Down Under, what should the NRL do?
The first thing is to stop dithering on South-East Queensland and work out where exactly the game wants to be.
I’m 100per cent convinced that we need a second club back in Brisbane and on face value, that new licence should be given to the Brisbane Firehawks, although I’m not keen on them using that ‘Brisbane’ name to avoid any confusion with their cross-river rivals – a genuine rivalry that would have fans, officials and broadcasters licking their lips.
Perhaps they could contemplate the ‘South Queensland’ or ‘West Brisbane’ Firehawks, especially the latter if they’re serious about this joint bid with the Brisbane Jets. The recent partnership with Ipswich club Goodna was a clever strategic move but so too would be securing a second-tier feeder side at Toowoomba, which the QRL seems to have forgotten about – a bit like that Sydney journo who forgot the Intrust Super Cup was being played this year!
At the same time, Redcliffe’s bid should not be dismissed, especially with so much growth along the coastal corridor between the Pine Rivers and Noosa – a stand-alone media market and an attractive location for prospective players.
In fact, if it were my call, I’d be telling the NRL to also green-light the Dolphins’ submission, on the proviso they be renamed the ‘Sunshine Coast Dolphins’ and play out of a new 30,000-seater stadium at Kawana, financed by the Queensland and Federal Governments. After all, that’s exactly what happened in Townsville when the Feds coughed up just before an election and now we have the perfect storm – an Olympics coming to SEQ in 2032.
Speaking from experience, the last thing those Coalition MPs on the Sunshine Coast want right now is a political headache in the form of a political football – pardon the pun – before the PM goes to the polls.
I’d even be suggesting to the Redcliffe bid team, seemingly with more coin than the Royal Australian Mint, that they also lobby the Queensland Government to build a new rail corridor off the existing North Coast line, allowing easy access to the stadium for supporters from Redcliffe and communities in that rapidly-expanding Moreton Bay local government area which, last I checked, was still among the biggest for population growth in Queensland.
Of course, building stadia takes time – just ask the locals in Christchurch – so I’m advocating the Firehawks and Dolphins come in together in 2024 to deliver an 18-team competition.
However, before that happens, the NRL needs to make some hard decisions and that involves the rationalisation of clubs in Greater Sydney. We all know it’s been talked about for decades but for the best part, it’s been put in the ‘too hard’ basket, notwithstanding the spectacularly failed marriage between old rivals Manly and North Sydney and the nomadic existence of the Wests Tigers after Balmain and Western Suburbs decided to hold hands.
My take is simple – put a truckload of cash and other sweeteners on the table to incentivise two Sydney clubs to relocate – one each to Western Australia and South Australia.
Admittedly, the concept of transplanting teams isn’t popular with ‘old school’ rugby league supporters, with just tenper cent of respondents to this year’s nrl.com fans survey saying they approve of such measures.
However, the same market research indicated that one-in-two footy fans believe the NRL should be adding “new teams in new locations” and hence my strong view that we should plant a couple of flags once again west of the River Murray.
We’ve seen the AFL’s relocation model work successfully in the past – first with South Melbourne, who more than a century after its formation, became the Sydney Swans. Then came Fitzroy, who not only merged with the Brisbane Bears but also found themselves heading to the Sunshine State, spearheading the code’s push into a frontier land whose people used to laugh at the Cararra Koalas. For goodness sake, I was one of them and back then, I wasn’t alone.
So who’s in the frame for relocation, you ask? Well, it’s two clubs with almost zero room for growth – Cronulla and Manly – unless you’re like The Goodies and think New Zealand can be towed towards Sydney Harbour!
Both clubs could still continue as Cronulla and Manly in the NSW Cup as feeder sides to the rebranded ‘Western Sharks’ and ‘Adelaide Eagles’ respectively, whose launch in time for a geographically expanded 2023 competition would tie in perfectly with the NRL’s next free-to-air TV rights deal. In fact, the NRL’s new transcontinental offering, as proposed, could potentially bring in more cash than the AFL’s existing contract with Seven.
Of course, resurrecting a team in the West, for example, would require a new investor or two, which I believe is more than possible, plus a massive backflip from NRL supremo Peter V’landys – enough to impress Nadia Comaneci.
After all, this is the same bloke who once said: “Forget wasting millions in rusted-on AFL States.” That infamous one-liner, before Oshay Olay came on the scene, went down like a lead balloon with the game in WA, which feels neglected more than ever before, remembering that when the Reds were part of the sporting landscape, playing at the spectator-unfriendly WACA, they initially averaged crowds of 13,390 – better than some of today’s NRL clubs.
Fast forward 26 years and Perth now boasts a state-of-the-art venue – good enough for State of Origin and the AFL grand final – and a significantly bigger population. On top of that, the West has some history when it comes to rugby league, with this year marking the 70th anniversary of the North Beach Sea Eagles. For the record, the Eagles are one of more than a dozen clubs from Perth to the Pilbara and Bunbury to Broome, boasting close to 2000 juniors.
Those clubs include the Fremantle Roosters – even older than the Sea Eagles – and relocating to a new home ground in Cockburn in 2022, following in the footsteps of the Fremantle Dockers, and boasting council-funded club rooms.
Furthermore, Western Australia is one of the greatest jurisdictions on the planet when it comes to Australia’s multi-billion dollar resources sector and we have countless people from the eastern States working in the West and many of them with a genuine connection to either rugby code or both and that’s before we consider the foreign legion from South Africa, Britain, etc. Seriously, giving up on Western Australia was akin to Russia selling Alaska to the Americans.
As for Adelaide, Australia’s fifth biggest city, don’t forget it’s also hosted Origin – a generation after the Rams were sent to the slaughterhouse and again, one only needs to examine their numbers from the late 1990s. In fact, in their first-ever premiership fixture, the Rams had more than 27,000 people through the turnstiles at the Adelaide Oval and the following season, they even took a game across the Spencer Gulf to the industrial city of Whyalla.
More than 23 years after that fixture, junior registrations are soaring in South Australia – albeit coming off a low base. At the South Adelaide Bulldogs, numbers have quadrupled and SA’s women’s game has seen a three-fold increase in participation over the past three years – not bad for another State without a flagship team and still boasting clubs as far afield as Adelaide, Mt Gambier, Naracoorte, Murray Bridge and Roxby Downs in the Outback.
The relocation of the Sharks and Sea Eagles, as polarising as it would be, doesn’t quite complete the Sydney jigsaw – certainly not in my eyes.
I’d also push for St George Illawarra to rebrand by 2023 as the ‘Illawarra Dragons’ and be anchored at Wollongong, remembering it’s the fourth biggest urban area in NSW, boasting a significant economic base – in stark contrast to the Central Coast – and also its own regional media. The Illawarra catchment also extends to the South Coast which has also seen considerable growth when compared to the good old days of ‘Stanley the Steeler’ revving up the locals.
The other prickly issue that needs to be addressed is Western Sydney – soon to have its own international airport and where the population is projected to reach three million by 2036.
As per a recent rant by Phil Gould, I’d be demanding that Wests Tigers, rugby league’s biggest gypsies until COVID-19 transformed life for the Warriors, play out of Campbelltown as the ‘West Sydney Tigers’ or even the ‘South-West Tigers’ – perhaps with a ‘heritage’ fixture once a year at historic Leichhardt.
With so many homes popping up in the Macarthur, plus over the range in the Wollondilly and stretching further down the Hume corridor to the Southern Highlands, it’s been embarrassing seeing other clubs and codes cutting the Tigers’ grass in those communities – ironic when you consider that Victa used to sponsor the Magpies!
Furthermore, if I were at the Bulldogs, I’d be looking to develop a new home at Liverpool – something mooted when I was at the club more than 20 years ago and a concept now being championed by the Liverpool Mayor. With millions of dollars on offer from the NSW Government for new stadia, my advice to Gus and Co is to start working the corridors of power in Macquarie St, which has already provided a cash splash for the Panthers. Yes, go figure.
Next, expanding the competition to 20 teams – something the ARL did successfully under the visionary pairing of Ken Arthurson and John Quayle, giving birth to the Warriors, Cowboys, Crushers and Reds.
With that in mind, for the 2025 season, I’d introduce two new overseas clubs – one from Wellington and another from Papua New Guinea – the latter of which has the financial firepower, ironclad and long-standing political support at the highest levels, an incredible junior nursery and a population of 9.2 million people that lives for the game and, in many cases, the day their nation gets its own team in the world’s premier competition.
As an added bonus, it’d be the perfect gift for Australia’s nearest neighbour, which significantly in 2025, will celebrate 50 years since independence.
It’s no secret the NRL loves club rivalries so that being the case, can you imagine the rivalry between the Warriors and the newcomers from the Kiwi capital? Having called the game over there for a decade, I can tell you that anywhere south of the Bombays, you have three million New Zealanders who unite in anything and everything when it comes to coming up against Auckland whose residents are known as ‘Jaffas’ and not to be mixed up with the lolly!
Even with the Papua New Guinea Hunters, based in Port Moresby, you’d have a ready-made rivalry with North Queensland. Can you imagine the Battle of the Coral Sea?
What we can be certain of is that New Zealand’s second NRL team would dramatically drive up the value of those broadcast rights in the Shaky Isles, where we saw incumbent telecaster Sky TV spooked this year thanks to competition in the market. By the time those rights come up again, in time for the 2028 season, they could be worth such a windfall, the NRL will be swimming in cash – so much so, they’ll need help from our golden girls in Tokyo!
However, as Tim Shaw used to say, but wait…there’s more, especially if the 13-a-side code has the stomach to take on its competitors in the Pacific.
The NRL could move to a 22-team competition by 2026 by bringing in a third New Zealand team, this time from the rugby union-obsessed South Island. After all, a new stadium is set to be constructed in the wake of that devastating earthquake in Christchurch more than ten years ago and the last thing that Cantabrian authorities want is for that 30,000-seat facility – the subject of great controversy – to be under-utilised after it’s opened in late 2025.
The 22nd and final franchise should be established in Fiji, encompassing not only that island nation of more than 900,000 people but also neighbouring countries in the Pacific including Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands – all of which have made giant strides on the international rugby league stage over the past decade. If the NRL truly believes in its politically-correct mantra of inclusiveness, then this is their opportunity to show it like never before.
Critics may well be laughing at me by now, if not beforehand, because they’ll run the argument that our game lacks the playing depth to conduct a competition of this magnitude.
Well, let me pose this simple question – how did we cope when we had three grades across that 20-team league instigated by ‘Arko’ and ‘Cannon’? I might add, that was well before the first big wave of Polynesian talent – something I remember only too well from my days in the biggest Polynesian city in the world. Compare to that to now and what we have is a tsunami of talent and the mind boggles as to who’s running around in those sun-drenched islands.
For the record, if you combine the populations of every South Pacific nation, excluding Australia, New Zealand and PNG, the figure is more than three million people. No wonder Super Rugby, itself trying to recover from COVID-19, has established two new teams – targetting both Polynesia and Melanesia. What’s the NRL doing in response? It’s all very well trying to get the game into the schools but you need a flagship team for those kids to idolise.
My proposed ‘Pasifika’ club would be unique in the professional sporting world, encompassing the people and cultures of all those nations. The team would be centred on the Fijian capital of Suva, home to 330,000 residents within 30 minutes of the national stadium and just 300 metres from the University of the South Pacific which, with Australian AID, could develop a state-of-the-art Centre of Excellence, similar to existing NRL clubs.
I’ve no doubt that with quality players, mostly of Fijian, Samoan, Tongan and Cook Islands heritage, this team would enjoy bumper crowds every fortnight, captivating global TV audiences – similar to their brothers at the Hunters. In fact, these new fans would be like tow-trucks to a car smash and furthermore, it’d do wonders for closer relations between Canberra and our South Pacific friends and allies – a significant outcome in an unpredictable world.
The Pasifika franchise could even consider playing eight of those ten home games in Fiji, with one game apiece in Samoa and Tonga, in addition to an annual pre-season fixture in the Cook Islands.
Ultimately, my grand vision for the NRL involves not only a 21-week transcontinental home-and-away season (ten home, ten away + Magic) but one that includes New Zealand, PNG and the South Pacific, meaning a potential TV audience of almost 43 million people. That, in turn, means the value of the NRL’s broadcast agreements would beat everyone else hands down – so much so, the heads of AFL and Super Rugby bosses, would be spinning like a ride at Luna Park.
Whether people like it or not, those TV rights underpin the game. Yes, the canteen mums and dads from Cootamundra to Cairns are important – that is not in question – but without money, the game as we know it, grinds to a halt.
Of course, the easy option for the NRL is to do nothing or at best, play it safe and stay well within that established footprint, especially as the game fights tooth and nail to bounce back from a pandemic and its profound financial impact. However, there will come a time when normality returns and one wonders if our administrators will be ready to strike, given their opponents are already loading their guns, if not firing them.
Whether we like it or not, the Battle for the Pacific is on but is the NRL prepared to send in the troops? Time will tell.