On Expansion and its relationship with Sydney

Another week, another expansion bone has been tossed to the ravenous dogs that are NRL nerds on social media to endlessly chew over. I say that like I wasn’t in there first and not still gnawing on it. I just can’t help myself.

This week, the target was the south-east Queensland expansion team dropped into the competition in 2007 that hasn’t turned out to be another Broncos, denying the broadcasters an opportunity to have multiple games with one million viewers each week.

In true Australian fashion, instead considering the historical accidents that have led to this point (i.e. basing the footprint of a supposedly national competition on the demographics of Sydney circa 1908 whose growth has then been fuelled by pokie dollars or previous south-east Queensland franchises that have failed, undercut by a hostile media and inept management) and attempting to rectify them or improve the presentation of the product so that it might appeal beyond Nine’s core audience of decrepit boomers, an executive contacted a buddy in the extremely accommodating media to have a good old fashioned whinge, Gerry Harvey-style. The consequence was the publication of several of the same think pieces we’ve seen before about why Sydney clubs must be protected at all costs.

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The theory is that the Titans should be relocated for their own good and that of the game. This is despite their upside as the extant team in Australia’s sixth largest city and third largest rugby league market is miles higher than any of the clubs located in the triangle between Gosford, Woollongong and Penrith. If rugby league can’t make it on the Gold Coast, we may as well pack it in now.

Relocating the Titans fixes precisely zero long term problems but does maintain the boomer nostalgia bubble which prevents any new ideas penetrating and making them uncomfortable. This attitude reached its final form this week when Phil Gould called for conferences to be introduced for no particular reason other than to segregate Sydney teams from the rest, returning to a late 1970s style NSWRL competition, and glossing over the gross complications that system would create.

Ultimately, the case for expansion is simple. It is fundamentally emotional – the desire to see something you are a part of grow and enjoyed by more people – and backed by the hard reality of capitalism.

The TV rights don’t seem to have much growth left in them. The broadcasters are already talking the next deal down, as you’d expect. Globally, rights values seem to have peaked. With Channel 9 financially on the ropes, the next rights deal may have one serious suitor, which will not go well for the NRL.

The clubs get an annual grant of $13 million under the current deal, which covers the $10 million salary cap and then some propping up money. This means that over $100 million per year is spent on keeping Sydney clubs going. While we could cut the grant or raise the salary cap, it’s not clear why non-Sydney clubs should receive less money or male players more, even if it ultimately forces the hand of the Sydneysiders.

The commercial value of the Sydney clubs, as a collective, is not in doubt. However, there are stronger clubs and weaker clubs and the sum is no greater than its parts. We have arrived at this point because a commitment to cultural inertia has led to an abject refusal by Sydneysiders to transform their rugby league landscape in the same way that other cities have in order to build a truly national competition.

There were twelve Sydney first grade sides in 1981. There are now nine, thirty-eight years later. In contrast, the eight Brisbane clubs are now five members of the Queensland Cup competition and two in third division district football, one of which is a recent revival. Brothers is gone.

At this rate, it will be another half century before we are at five Sydney clubs. By then, the NBA, UEFA and others will be globe spanning colossi, winning the race to take all the eyeballs, and no one will care about our backwater cottage industry.

With a zero sum situation on broadcast revenue, money spent in Sydney is not able to be spent elsewhere. Change is required, not only to avoid being an also-ran in the race to homogenise all human culture but in the here and now, markets like Perth, Adelaide and further development of existing but not saturated markets in Queensland and New Zealand offer the potential of a better return on investment. This return secures the future of the cultural institution of rugby league while simultaneously spreading the joy that it brings into our lives to others who do not presently share in it.

While this is predominantly a spiel about geography, it remains to be seen where the money to grow the women’s game is going to come from. If we want to talk about upside, women’s rugby league’s major competitors as a self-respecting, professional contact sport for women are rugby union, ice hockey and the Legends Football League (formerly the Lingerie Football League). The bar is not high and the untapped potential is enormous, but it will require investment.

Do we want to privilege the feelings of Sydney fans above the opportunities other avenues offer?

In a normal world, such an obviously beneficial goal would be achieved through careful planning and would require some sacrifice from the existing powers that be for the greater good. This might involve adopting one of a number of different models that result in the incumbents no longer being in Sydney or in first grade or as standalone entities. Possibly even the formation of some sort of “super” league should be tabled. The pain would be managed.

However, rugby league has a fundamental culture of reactive conservatism and the core value of conservatism is to avoid change until it is untenable to do so and then to preserve the status quo as best as possible. So any change will only occur when it is too late for it to be anything but a disaster. This will mean some clubs in Sydney, possibly elsewhere, will go broke and it remains to be seen if the ones left standing will be considerably weaker for the experience. Undoubtedly, the NRL will cop the blame for this, as they did and do for North Sydney’s demotion and the subsequent disappearance of trillions of rugby league fans.

What will really happen is nothing, because it’s too hard and the people who run the game are not up to making hard decisions or convincing the fanbase of the need for change. We will have the same discussions, ad nauseum, for the next couple of decades until Australian rugby league joins the English game in the shadows of mainstream culture.

Any changes need to be driven by the clubs and their members, democratically acknowledging the necessary sacrifice for the game to grow and benefit others. This would be preferably supported by a media whose leading lights could see further than State of Origin selections and think about more than just what refereeing howlers cost who on the weekend.

If the people of Sydney can’t come together to make a sacrifice over something as triflingly unimportant as the structure of a football competition, I suppose that is because we as a nation have no capacity for sacrifice to overcome any real problems we may face in the future. And I, for one, welcome our new Chinese overlords.

I have a plan for what I would do if I was rugby league’s Benevolent Dictator but it doesn’t matter what it is because there are myriad ways to resolve the sport’s current issues and approach the game’s future challenges. I’m sure Peter Vlandys has all of this – managing the rationalisation of Sydney clubs, expansion into a national footprint, growing the women’s and international game, promoting second tier leagues and doing something about brain injuries while keeping all stakeholders happy – in hand and won’t spend his time in office stroking the egos of his mates in the media, in the gaming industry and at the Sydney clubs who pushed him forward.