BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 09: Jack De Belin of the Dragons passes during the NRL Elimination Final match between the Brisbane Broncos and the St George Illawarra Dragons at Suncorp Stadium on September 9, 2018 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

In the wake of Todd Greenberg announcing that any potential NRL expansion will come at earliest in 2022, the NRL is at a very crucial point at the moment with regards to expansion.

When we say that expansion has to wait until 2022, what we mean in NRL terms is that ‘We’ll probably start thinking about potentially scheduling expansion discussions around the end of 2022. Discussions will start in 2023, and we’ll probably come to the conclusion that we should add another Sydney team by 2030 if you’re lucky.’

It’s been frustrating for NRL fans for years now. We’ve been crying out for a second Brisbane team, a team in Perth and another Kiwi side. Despite this, there’s been no movements or any signs of a developing team for years now.

As someone who’s lived in a Soccer-mad Holland for the past nine years, it’s absolutely beyond me to think that a product as incredible as rugby league has such a little following worldwide. Realistically, the sport has one premier division, which is largely condensed into a little corner of NSW.

Alternatively, there’s the UK Super League. We all know that it’s notably a step down from the NRL, and even it’s closely condensed in small towns in the North of England.

Anyone who watched Fox League’s NRL 360 this year will have heard time and time again that the game has to start to bring in its ‘peripheral fans’. These are the fans that pay loose attention to the NRL, potentially even having a team, but are nowhere near following it week-in week-out.

Now at the time of writing, three NRL stars have been charged having assaulted women. Jarryd Hayne and Jack de Belin being charged with sexual assault, and Dylan Walker being charged with assaulting his partner over a PlayStation game.

It’s events such as these that repel, rather than attract, the peripheral fans. People aren’t as inclined to be part of a sport where the players assault women.

That’s not to say that the NRL are to blame in any capacity, because in the end they cannot be responsible for each act of each registered individual, but nonetheless the player’s actions have an impact on the NRL’s brand.

A parent will be massively deterred from signing their son or daughter to play under 9’s footy in the park when stories such as those of Hayne, Walker and de Belin are circulating the media. This massively harms the argument calling for the NRL to invest in grassroots footy.

Rugby league has to grow internationally. It’s been said before and it remains as relevant.

You could go telling everyone in the world right now about rugby league. You could show them the speed of Josh Addo-Carr, the athleticism of Latrell Mitchell, and the sheer size of Jason Taumalolo.

You could then show them the spectacle that was the 2015 Grand Final, and really get people interested.

But none of that will matter, as soon as they make an attempt to get involved.

At the time of writing, when you make a Google search for NRL, three articles appear. Two on Jack de Belin’s assault charge, and the third on all three assault cases. That’s the primary image our game has. What does that say about our ability to advertise ourselves?

Of course, we could do what we usually do and simply blame it on the media’s negative portrayal of the game. By far more feel-good stories occur in our game than the negative ones, but they don’t get any attention. This is where Greenberg’s ‘Talk the game up’ movement has some theoretical merit.

Now the media themselves will argue that they simply present the facts. This also isn’t entirely true. The media present what’ll earn them money. In the end, that’s the juicy, scandalous stories that have negative connotations.

The ability to truly ‘expand’ the game is so heavily dependant on the players, and when they’re doing what the unfortunate minority of them do at the moment, the players are letting the game down. We need to sell ourselves to an international audience, and with the headlines we have at the moment, that’s near impossible.

‘Talking the game up’ will only come as a result of not having anything to talk the game down about. And how do we make sure there’s nothing to talk the game down about? By making sure nobody does anything stupid. And a great way to do that, is by cracking down on those who do.

As a professional organisation, the NRL has to have standards. The players that behaved below that standard have to be dealt with. Whether that’s by handing out life-bans depends on the circumstance, but it’s essential to preserve the image of the NRL.

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