Expansion – A subject that’s gained plenty of momentum since the arrival of Peter Beattie as the new ARL Commission Chairman, who has publicly stated that expansion is back on the agenda for the NRL. Mr Beattie believes the NRL must grow in order to survive, with the potential of introducing two new clubs by 2022, to coincide with the new TV rights deal.
When it comes to expansion, the NRL is so far behind, the A-League in its current form covers more territory across Australia since it’s inception just 14 years ago and they’ve been relatively successful on the broader scale geographically, in markets where the NRL doesn’t exist. The NRL has also been defenceless as the AFL have successfully made inroads into rugby league heartland, as the AFL remains the benchmark in relation to expansion across Australia.
The first question to be answered in regards to expansion; is there enough player talent to sustain an 18-team competition? During the ARL/Super League split 21 years ago, there was a combined total of 22 rugby league teams, and the quality of each competition was quite poor. We had a plethora of players who simply weren’t good enough for the top grades and playing talent was not evenly spread.
The NRL must create and nurture more quality talent capable of playing at the first-grade level, in order to sustain two new teams. It’s been confirmed that both states will run their own U/20’s competitions, replacing the NRL’s national U/20s competition, so there will be a healthy amount of talent coming through the lower grade ranks and the responsibility lies with the NRL, QRL and NSWRL to ensure players have clear pathways to make it to first grade.
By 2022, the NRL should look to expand with two new teams in rugby league heartland areas on the NSW Central Coast and the Ipswich/Logan Corridor (west of Brisbane) and two Sydney teams with already assembled playing rosters to relocate to two non-rugby league cities of Perth and Adelaide. I’ll reserve my opinion on which Sydney teams should relocate, but the reality is, no Sydney team turns over a profit and the game as a whole in Sydney has stagnated badly.
The NRL may have to provide a financial incentive to convince Sydney clubs and their players to relocate, but it would be logical for a team like the Cronulla Sharks, who according to Roy Morgan research conducted by Fox Sports, has the lowest number of fans of all the Sydney based clubs and are based in an area with a population of only 200,000. To continue using Cronulla as an example, they should look to relocate to Perth, with a population of 2.5 million or Adelaide with a population of 1.5 million and have either the entire West Coast or South Australia all to themselves. They would keep their loyal fans from the Shire and gain hundreds of thousands of new fans.
Why should a Sydney team relocate to Perth?
A relocated Sydney team would benefit from thousands of additional club memberships, endless corporate sponsorship opportunities as a stand-alone rugby league club based in a capital city, the golden opportunity to take advantage of the ARU’s decision to scrap the Western Force Super Rugby franchise and the ability to grow the game in AFL heartland, including the potential recruitment of AFL juniors converting to rugby league. Given the time difference out in the West, the majority of their home games should be played during ‘family friendly’ afternoon/twilight timeslots, which would air during prime time in the eastern states. Their home ground would likely be the rectangular, 20,500 seat capacity NIB Stadium or the WACA.
In 1995/96, the Western Reds was the best performing expansion team during that time, averaging home crowds of 13,000, more than most Sydney teams, but were eventually victims of the Super League war, in which they were forced to pay for flights and accommodation of visiting clubs, inevitably sending the club broke. But since then, Perth recently drew a crowd of almost 40,000 for the doubleheader in Round 1 at the new Optus Stadium. From 2013 to 2016, NRL matches taken to Perth, including a Test match, have averaged crowds of more than 20,000.
Why should a Sydney team relocate to Adelaide?
The same reasons as moving to Perth in relation to corporate sponsorship opportunities, memberships and growing the game in AFL heartland. The home ground would be the Adelaide Oval and/or Coopers Stadium.
In 1997, the Adelaide Rams averaged home crowds of 15,000, including the fourth highest crowd of 27,435 that season. Unfortunately, during that time, there simply wasn’t enough quality talent in rugby league to assemble a competitive roster and their lack of on-field success led to their demise. The NRL has taken 3 games to Adelaide since 2010 with a crowd average of 14,000. The Roosters will be heading back to Adelaide Oval in June after they drew a crowd on 21,000 last season against the Storm. The NRL will be taking a State of Origin game to the Adelaide Oval in 2020, which they’d expect to be a sell-out.
Should the NRL decide to expand to Perth and Adelaide, it would be vital from a player depth and roster perspective to also expand reserve grade feeder clubs to these cities as well, via the QRL or NSWRL state competitions, which would also boost opportunities for lower grade players aspiring to make it to the NRL.
Why expand to the NSW Central Coast?
The resurrection of the (North Sydney) Bears would be the logical option, as they already have a loyal fan base, have the advantage of securing corporate sponsorship, they’d be located 75km up the M1 from their traditional home and being a foundation club, brings tradition. The Central Coast currently has 23 junior clubs and over 7000 players participating in rugby league at all levels. Central Coast Stadium with a capacity of over 20,000, usually comes close to selling out every time the NRL has taken a game there over the past dozen years.
Why expand to the Ipswich/Logan Corridor (west of Brisbane)?
Neighbouring cities Ipswich and Logan have a combined population of over 500,000 and expanding rapidly. They have thousands of juniors, existing QRL reserve grade clubs and corporate sponsorship opportunities which could potentially expand into Brisbane. The only problem is the area doesn’t have a stadium but would base itself out of Suncorp Stadium, which is roughly 30-40 minutes away from these areas until a potential stadium is built. However, the Ipswich train line takes fans directly to Suncorp Stadium so it definitely is not a major problem.
Ipswich and Logan deserve their own team rather than adding a second Brisbane team. A second Brisbane team would dilute the Broncos brand, which is the most profitable club in the NRL. Also, Brisbane contains thousands of Ipswich and Logan expats who would switch allegiances from the Broncos to an Ipswich/Logan NRL club.
It’s important to note that expansion is at least 4 years away, giving the NRL plenty of time to establish itself in Perth and Adelaide, but the ARL Commission needs to be proactive and make the decision on where to expand and relocate as soon as possible, giving new clubs and relocating Sydney clubs enough time to establish their brand in these areas, as well as sufficient time to assemble a competitive playing roster.
As rugby league continues to grow long-term, the NRL could then look at expanding to PNG, a second NZ team, Pacific Islands, Fiji etc; and adopt the NFL (American Football) structure, splitting the competition into two separate conferences or the possibility of the QRL and NSWRL state competitions merging to created an EPL (English Soccer) promotion and relegation system.