Six months ago, the Titans were on the chopping block to keep the Sydney clubs alive and some think still should be. With the NRL’s footprint study having presumably been delivered to the ARLC, if not the general public, Peter V’Landys has let drop that he’s not interested in taking the NRL to Perth and is far more interested in adding a seventeenth NRL team in Brisbane.
In recent weeks, as the NRL edges closer to admitting it will admit a second Brisbane club to the competition, the media has been prolific in its coverage. There’s no surprise about that. The prospect of the NRL adding its first new team in – by the time 2023 rolls around – sixteen years is seriously exciting and interesting.
Even as a staunch Broncos fan, I don’t have a problem with it. I’m genuinely looking forward to the prospect of a full blown Brisbane derby twice a year. It will make the Hull derby look like the Roosters and Rabbitohs playing in a three-quarters-empty ANZ Stadium. It would also mitigate the need for all Broncos games to be scheduled on a Thursday or Friday, lest the commercial base of the sport collapse. It might be nice to go to the football on a Saturday arvo for a change.
Naturally, the questions of how, why, when and what follow, along with approximately a million opinions. If this sounds like an exaggeration, I can assure it is not because I’ve read them all.
Some Broncos fans don’t want the incumbent’s prestige to be challenged. Others question the viability of a new team when all Brisbanites are rusted-on Broncos fans. Still others don’t want Brisbane to follow Sydney into a saturated quagmire of competing interests that cannot be resolved for the good of the game. Most people want to see what’s being offered first.
Refreshingly, there’s some but not a lot of entrenched history and nostalgia and feelings that have to be challenged. Brisbane arguably obliterated a lot of its own rugby league heritage when the Broncos were formed. It will be sad for the city to lose a symbol of its unity but the Maroons have done a far better job of bringing people together over the last ten years, with more success and far fewer scandals.
For me, the ideal bid is one that adds enough value to the league that it can pay for an eighteenth team in a non-traditional market. The pap about securing the Brisbane market for rugby league and providing another pathway to Origin is rubbish. The NRL’s ratings in Brisbane were 30% higher on a per capita basis than Sydney in 2019. While you consider that, I’ll try to find a player who is missing out on a Maroon jersey because there are only three professional teams in Queensland.
A seventeenth team in Brisbane doesn’t expand the game but it should make money. The ideal bid would add $100 million to the NRL’s coffers, either through a licence fee or extra dollars for the next broadcast deal or both, because that’s how much it cost to get the Storm going. Melbourne remains rugby league’s only successful expansion in to a new market since World War II. If we are actually going to go to Perth again or Adelaide or further into New Zealand, it won’t just be funded on chook raffles, gate receipts and pokie revenue.
In Brisbane, trying to carve off a portion of the city’s geography and/or play out of a suburban stadium is far too limiting and offers no space for the franchise to grow. The 2.2 million people in the Brisbane metropolitan area are not going to broadly identify with a team named after a peninsula in the far northern suburbs or a western suburb of 200,000 people. More people live in the Sutherland Shire and the Sharks’ recently announced $3 million loss indicates how well that’s going in 2020.
If the Titans and Sharks can draw 18,000 to Suncorp on a Thursday night, then a new Brisbane team should expect a gate averaging at least 20,000. The same is not true of a team playing at Dolphin Oval (capacity: 11,170) or North Ipswich Reserve (5,500). A new stadium might only be funded if it can be used for the Olympics in twelve years and that assumes Brisbane wins the bid, which won’t be announced until it is too late to start planning a team. More to the point, no one in their right mind would leave that kind of money on the table.
To be viable, the team is going to need to name itself “Brisbane” (or maybe “Moreton Bay” or “South-east Queensland” or similar) and play its home games out of Suncorp Stadium. There are no alternatives to this, it’s just the way it has to be for the team to maximise its potential and have the remotest chance of succeeding to deliver the value the game needs out of a seventeenth team. If this sounds a bit too ‘corporate’ or even suspiciously ‘Super League’, it’s because I live in 2020.
Those that fear the creation of a franchise in the mould of the Titans haven’t been paying attention. The Gold Coast side are the worst rating team on Foxtel, ranking dead last in average viewers over the last three regular seasons, 20% lower than the leading Broncos. However, free-to-air is different matter, where the Titans are 3,000 average viewers shy of the two-time premiers over the same period and out-rated Penrith, Canterbury, St George Illawarra, Wests Tigers, Canberra, Manly and Newcastle. While I haven’t accounted for time slots, it’s also fair to say that the Titans have not been a drawcard during that time.
In attendances, despite being wooden spooners, the Titans got more fans through the gates than the Dragons in 2019. In 2018, the Titans’ gate was better than the Raiders, Sharks, Sea Eagles and the Eels, despite playing several games in regional areas because of the Commonwealth Games. In 2017, the reigning premiers couldn’t attract as many patrons as the Titans, nor could the Warriors, Panthers, Bunnies, Dragons or Tigers.
Memberships are an issue, with the Titans trailing the league since 2016 and falling further behind. On the other hand, the Dragons supposedly had 21,000 members in 2019 and averaged fewer than 10,000 at their games, so perhaps Titans fans are just savvier?
In other words, given that the Titans are terrible and still have better metrics than a big chunk of the league, a Titans clone would be the least we could hope for. Imagine what they could do if they started winning.
So I’m not concerned we’ll add another Titans to the competition. I’m concerned we’ll add another Sydney club.
Sydney and Melbourne are exceptions in world sport, not the norm. No other sports has top level professional teams so heavily concentrated in one city. The closest analogs are La Liga clubs in Madrid and baseball teams in Tokyo and neither meet the same density on a per capita basis. American sports and, to a lesser extent, European soccer find themselves roughly distributed to maximise returns and optimise density. This can happen either organically, as soccer’s promotion and relegation system seems to work, or inorganically, via the American franchising system. As a result, their sports teams are in a less precarious position financially, which has obvious benefits.
In that context, it seems silly to look at Sydney as the only or even a desirable model of rugby league, when it is a crucible unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. It is sillier still to take Sydney’s rugby league culture and assume all markets have already been divied up into the exclusive fiefdoms of existing clubs, comprising fans attached like barnacles to a set of colours chosen for arbitrary, geographical or familial reasons that would rather die than adopt another set of colours that might actually be more meaningful. But you don’t need me to remind you of Australian rugby league’s inherent Sydney-centrism.
The Broncos represent a broad church. Going by revenue, membership numbers and average attendances, there probably aren’t than many more hardcore Broncos supporters than any of the big Sydney clubs, despite being a one town team. These people aren’t leaving the Broncos but they might only be a few hundred thousand people.
There exists, outside of the Broncos’ direct sphere of influence, a larger fanbase of casual footy fans who go to or watch Broncos games because that’s what’s available. It would be a mistake to assume that they won’t be agnostic or switch teams, especially if the new team is more successful, just because that’s what extremely online NRL monomaniacs think they would do in that situation. It is worth remembering that projecting what you think you would do in a particular situation on to millions of people you’ve never met is a risky basis for decision making.
If you look at million-or-so ratings for Friday nights, the two million-plus population of Brisbane, State of Origin, the reception of Magic Round and the scale of the south-east Queensland economy, there’s clearly an opportunity to meet the latent demand for NRL that the Broncos can’t or won’t.
For example, outside of Magic Round, there are only twelve Broncos home games a year, which are predominantly on Thursday or Friday night. If you can’t make those specific nights, you can’t go to a NRL game unless you’re willing to get a on a train for an hour and a half from Central plus whatever time it takes you to get there or get on a plane. A new team doubles the opportunities available.
Ultimately, tribalism or rust have nothing to do with this because Brisbane is not Sydney.
As we edge closer to reality, we can consider what options are actually available. Far from my idealistic notions of enriching the NRL to expand the game, we’re left with a handful of bids, none of which are perfect.
(Despite the above, I acknowledge that I may never regard any bid as ideal because I subconsciously don’t want a second Brisbane team)
North Sydney Bears
As officially endorsed by the Peanut King himself, Paul Kent, bringing back the Bears is the ultimate Sydney boomer nostalgia move that screams “Fuck your history and ideas, I’m forcing mine on you and you will like it” (Peter FitzSimons could only commit to bringing the Bears back to the Central Coast, an even more baffling proposition).
Notwithstanding the extremely obvious fact that the AFL would own all of the intellectual property related to the ‘Brisbane Bears’, Queenslanders are not going to follow a relocated Sydney team. Pre-Origin, that strategy might have worked but you can’t make Queensland-versus-New South Wales the game’s central commercial proposition and then expect one half of that rivalry to accept a cast-off from the other. To cite precedent, in 1999, the Bears took a home game against the Cowboys to Lang Park. The match attracted a paltry 3,382 attendees.
The point of relocating a team is that they will have an existing fanbase in the original city to fall back on while they build a bigger one in the new city. The problem is if you have not played first grade as a standalone club since 1999, and there are kids who have been born since then that can legally buy alcohol now, how many fans are still around to fall back on? How many were there to begin with?
“How good would it be though?” Fuck off.
The Redcliffe Dolphins are the strongest Queensland Cup club, with a soon-to-be 10,000 seat stadium, a big leagues club, a storied history and are firmly entrenched in their local community, which is a hard-to-access peninsula at the northern end of Moreton Bay. If you wanted a Brisbane version of Manly, you couldn’t look past the Dolphins.
If I knew more about AFL, I’d draw a comparison to Port Adelaide, which I think is the only top level sports club in Australia that has been brought up from a lower tier. It would seem the idea has 100% success rate, compared to the dicey 50-50 chances of creating new franchises from scratch, so they’ve got that going for them.
Dolphin Oval isn’t quite big enough for the NRL which, despite never aiming up, should be forcing clubs to play out of minimum 25,000 all-seater stadiums. The Dolphins have acknowledged this and reckon they’ll play out of Suncorp. They’ve also acknowledged that Redcliffe won’t have widespread appeal, so they will also adopt a generic Brisbane/Queensland moniker (“Moreton Bay Dolphins” has a nice ring and might engage the people of the Moreton Bay Regional Council) but focus their marketing more on the Dolphins brand.
Bringing up a second tier club isn’t ideal but at least the Dolphins have shown the right thinking about it.
The Easts Tigers bid runs on the same logic as the Dolphins’, which means it has the same strengths and weaknesses. The main differences are that Langlands Park is nowhere near NRL standard, so home games must go to Suncorp, and the club already acknowledges it will need to change name and colours if it is to join the NRL because of the Wests Tigers.
No suggestions for what the new brand might be have been forthcoming, other than an interesting idea that they will form the ‘south’ Brisbane counterpart to the Broncos’ ‘north’. This is an insulting suggestion as a Souths Logan fan, but at least makes some sense, given a million or so live above the river and a similar number below.
The Tigers previously experimented with being the East Coast Tigers in 2001-02, a throwback to a potential merger with the Gold Coast Chargers and/or Balmain Tigers before that resolved itself by both teams ceasing to exist. With no attachments to their current identity, they could get permission to revive the South Queensland Crushers marque, a nod to millennial nostalgia instead of boomers’, as if that would somehow be preferable and not at all unbearable. That would be interesting to see how popular opinion swings to or away from them.
The Western Corridor bid is basically the same as the Tigers’ and Dolphins’ and builds on the Ipswich Jets. The Western Corridor nominally covers the area from Logan, west to Ipswich and then out to Toowoomba, which I’ll grant you is growing very quickly but is generally extremely low density suburbia with no discernible identity other than “we’re not Brisbane, I don’t care what the ABS says” until you get to Toowoomba, at which point Brisbane ended about forty-five minutes ago.
There’s no stadium along the M2, so games would either have to go to Suncorp or QSAC, which would need a massive refurbishment and is still in the Brisbane LGA, until North Ipswich Reserve can be developed. Loganers would likely find it easier to still attend Suncorp than Ipswich, given the way public transport is set up in this city. If that’s the case, then the catchment for the Western Corridor bid would be quite limited. A ‘west Brisbane’ approach – like the airport at Toowoomba – might be more generic but loosens the connection to Ipswich.
They’ve yet to be interviewed by the Courier Mail this time around, perhaps doing some preparation, so this bid still has more details to come.
While the above has not dated well from their launch in 2011, the Bombers’ biggest advantage is that they exist. At least, in the sense that they have a logo and presumably an ABN. Their sole decision made to date, to name themselves the Bombers, really brings a lot of doubt on the organisation’s decision making. Naming yourself the ‘Bombers’ in 2020 will be like naming yourself the ‘Predator Drones’ in 2070, provided that professional sport still exists then. It probably should have been knocked on the head when Essendon got done for doping.
As a club-independent consortium of businessmen who have operated in the real world, along with Billy Moore and Scott Sattler, the Bombers are actually closer to what I think is required but it’s hard to tell if they are actually rich enough to make it work. They are not popular with the Twitterati and seem incapable of making an argument for why they specifically should get a licence that isn’t couched in the most generic corporate-speak imaginable, which means they make a lot of the same arguments that I’ve just made. Thinking about it, they’d be a lot more popular with me if they just changed the branding. I have an idea:
The NRL will get more information than we will ever be allowed to see on which to base their decision. I’d like to think that the due diligence will yield the best possible outcome but we’ll have to wait and see.
If it doesn’t pan out for BNE2 and the NRL insists on another team in south-east Queensland, I know a city up the road that hasn’t got any pro men’s sports teams that could grow into a NRL team, like Brisbane did with the Broncos, Canberra did with the Raiders and we hope the Gold Coast will do with the Titans.
Rugby league’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t know what it wants. Historically, the sport has knee jerked in response to challenges and more or less weathered them intact, but has really failed to make a significant mark outside of the territories it held circa 1939.
The point of expanding the game is to make it bigger. The bigger it is, the more talent it attracts, the better it gets; it’s a simple equation. It also ensures the sport’s survival. With a greater distribution and diversity, the scale of disaster required wipe rugby league off the map becomes less and less likely.
In Australia, NRL should strive to be the national code that represents its citizens as equally as possible. Rugby league is poised to do this in a way that rugby union and AFL cannot. The sport has four cultural values to impart:
- Get paid for your labour
- Rugby should be entertaining to watch
- Your class, race, religion, sexuality or other identity won’t hold you back if you play well enough
- Represent your people, not the arbitrarily defined country into which you were born
Despite what those on rugby’s frontiers in the New World would tell you, these ideas are important. If they weren’t, we may as well fold the NRL and get behind the Wallabies.
Expansion is hard, expensive, has to be well planned and above all, has to have a clearly identified purpose. None of these have been rugby league’s forte. The NRL has money now and it is as popular as it has ever been. The slightest modicum of intelligence applied to planning and decision making will go a long way to securing the sport’s, and its ideals’, future.