Running a sporting organisation at any level is not easy.
Even volunteers at a local level often deal with unnecessary criticism. So obviously operating a national professional league is no easy feat.
The NRL are constantly battling to keep the game moving forward while balancing the vested interested of a vast array of passionate stakeholders. I’m sure Todd Greenberg and the NRL would likely admit that they don’t always get it right. But the league has made great strides in the professional era, even while battling the hangover of a nasty civil war.
But there is still plenty of things the game could work on.
With the 2020 season looming I’ve taken the liberty of putting together some ideas the NRL could look at to continue growing the game. Some are easy fixes, some not so easy and highly unlikely, others are already being discussed. These ideas could also be just a start and be tweaked into greater outcomes.
The first part will focus on scheduling of the game to make it more fan friendly and still focus on delivering healthy broadcast rights to the league. Obviously, scheduling is not easy and needs to factor in many variables including venue availability, broadcaster preference, team travel and fan expectations.
1. Morph the NRL Nines and other pre-season trials into a 13-man tournament.
NRL Nines is obviously meant to be a fun fast product like Twenty20 cricket, but is over very quickly, almost before people can talk properly about it.
There is also commercial value in the regular trial games that teams play. They are a great place to trial new rules, see new players and take games to non-traditional venues like Perth, or regional centres. The competition could focus on four locations with four pools of four teams, and another location for finals over three weekends in February or even early March.
If player workload is an issue, slight rule tweaks like unlimited interchange or 30-minute halves could help mitigate this.
2. Less Thursday night and Friday 6pm games.
This would obviously be a difficult one to negotiate with broadcasters, as they see Thursday night as a key ratings slot. However, the sugar hit the game has got itself addicted to with bad scheduling is having an affect on how fans view the game.
Thursday night games could be saved for blockbusters prior to long weekends. Friday 6pm games have little value other than an 8pm kick off for Warriors home games, most people are still on their way home before they can even get to a TV to watch, let alone attend.
Thursday and Friday 6pm games could be replaced with Sunday 6pm, which is still a prime TV viewership period and much more likely to be attended (although still not in huge numbers) and re-work Saturday timeslots to include a fourth game.
If the league expands to 18 teams, an extra Sunday time slot could be added. If expansion did take place, a new team based in Perth would also open a very useful new time zone, meaning there would be a window both two hours before and after Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. This would be attractive to broadcasters.
EXAMPLE: 16 team competition.
EXAMPLE: 18 team competition.
Additionally, all matches should exactly at the time stated. The fans are not stupid and know the games start later than programmed for advertising and this shouldn’t continue.
3. Use school holidays better within scheduling
The Big Bash has shown how successful games scheduled during school holidays can be. T20 cricketers can obviously play more than one game per week to capitalise on this compared to NRL games. However, decisions such as playing block buster games in these windows could help boost attendance. For example, the Broncos play Cowboys in July school holidays each season.
4. Use of conferences to help to build rivalry and consistency in the schedule
The conferences would purely make a clearly defined system to which teams play each other twice each season. One clear competition ladder would remain to decide the finalists.
Conferences are based on rivalries and location. It would also help to avoid any ambiguity around teams complaining they play a strong team twice and weak team once – the system is clearly defined. If teams only play each other once a year, they alternate home games each season.
EXAMPLE: 16 Team Competition.
Conference 1; Rabbitohs, Roosters, Dragons, Bulldogs, Tigers, Eels, Sharks, Panthers
Conference 2; Broncos, Cowboys, Titans, Storm, Raiders, Knights, Manly, Warriors.
Play each team in your conference twice and all other teams once for a total of 22 games each. Playing less games in a season would mean less value to broadcasters, however this could be offset with the longer more structured and televised pre-season competition.
EXAMPLE: 18 Team Competition.
Conference 1; Rabbitohs, Roosters, Dragons, Bulldogs, Tigers, Eels, Sharks, Panthers, Manly.
Conference 2; Perth Team, QLD 4th Team, Broncos, Cowboys, Titans, Storm, Raiders, Knights, Warriors.
Play each team in your conference twice and all other teams once for a total of 25 games each.
5. Schedule more consistent representative fixtures inside the rep windows.
This includes both during and post the NRL season. As great a product as State of Origin is, it only directly involves players and fans from the two traditional states of Australia. The game is potentially shooting itself in the foot by holding it as the pinnacle of the game if players and fans from other backgrounds feel there is a glass ceiling to either reaching, or even supporting a team.
As an example, a three match Origin style series between Samoa and Tonga, likewise for Fiji v PNG could be held in a rep only window in May or June. Discussions with the Super League could lead to a mid-year England, Scotland, Ireland series too. This period could also be utilised to develop an Origin style New Zealand series, which could be developed depending on what fans would be more passionate about.
This 3-4 week long window could also coincide with a transfer period, and give terms the chance to reset and review for the push to finals and also mean the NRL doesn’t suffer from as much player drain during the hardest time of the season to attract fans. Other games could include NSW v QLD Residents, Maori and Indigenous All Stars and other internationals.