BNE2.3: What is the point of it?

Previously, in our series on Brisbane expansion:


A football club has an identity. Three things comprise a club’s identity: purpose, mythology and reality. Let’s explore those ideas with some NRL case studies.

The mythology of the Brisbane Broncos is that these were excellent footballers that were assembled from the Brisbane competition and wider Queensland to go south and show the Sydneysiders how it was done. From the first game, a record thrashing of the defending premiers, and through many premierships, the club’s success was a reflection of Queensland’s innate quality. The reality of the Broncos is that they had enormous financial and other advantages that enabled them to maintain a deep roster of talent and dominate the sport for nearly twenty years. Now that those advantages have been eroded, the reality of the club is much clearer.

Indeed, the reality of most NRL clubs is much the same. They get $13 million from the NRL each year and spend nearly $10 million on player salaries, have the same football department cap and, with a few exceptions, are run by some of the worst managers in Australia. But without the sales and admin and cleaning staff, there is no club. It’s always interesting to me to see people who, despite spending a lot of time thinking about football, are unable to separate the myth from the reality.

The purpose of the Gold Coast Titans is clear. They represent the people of the Gold Coast in the premier rugby league football competition in the country and give that city a national presence that no other sports teams can or have or maybe will. The reality is that, barring a few preliminary final appearances, the club has been mediocre to poor for its entire existence, brought to the brink of financial destruction and rescued by the NRL. The Titans have no mythology. There are no star players with long careers at Robina, no premierships or even really any interesting stories. They’ve existed but not lived. Consequently, its tough for the Titans to find wider acceptance within their community because they feel incomplete. We can speculate that if the name or the colours were different, whether that would have a different outcome but you can dress inferiority up however you like but it still sucks. That’s hard to invest in and doubly hard to sit through.

In contrast, the Wests Tigers almost have too much mythology. The combination of Balmain, brimming with a long history of success with one obvious home, and Western Suburbs, decidedly less successful and far more nomadic but with at least a patina of working class battler, has yielded more questions than answers. Specifically, who are the Wests Tigers and what are they for? Who are their people? While the exploits of Benji Marshall and company go some way to establishing a uniquely Wests Tigers mythology, the recent lack of success offers little to either side of the merger. You could accept some compromise on the club’s identity if it meant winning but to live in a subpar limbo satisfies no one. So despite the historical success, it’s the lack of obvious purpose that means that the Tigers will never be the darling of the so-called ‘City Fathers’ who cluck their tongues, stroke their beards and wonder, “Whats to be done with these Wests Tigers?”

The Newcastle Knights hit the trifecta. Their purpose is to represent Newcastle on the national stage in a way no other institution could. Their mythology is that of the 1997 grand final and the Johns brothers and then the 2001 grand final and more. Their reality is not that dissimilar to the Titans since 2007 but the mythology makes all the difference. They are a real and complete football club.

This brings us to the three Brisbane bids to be the seventeeth team in the NRL. My thinking on this has changed a lot over the last two years. Where I was excited by the novelty of it, I am now quite apathetic to the outcome of this process. It lacks purpose and it lacks an overall strategic context. What is the point of it?

Nonetheless, we wait with bated breath to see if Peter V’Landys, and anyone else who he deigned to allow speak in his presence, decide to add a new team to the competition (probable) or two new teams (unlikely) or no new teams (possible). I will admit the novelty still has some appeal and we may never get to analyse an opportunity like this again.

The key here is to not fall into the trap of thinking that Brisbane’s rugby league landscape is the same as Sydney’s. Sydney rugby league is like playing Risk: the map has been thoroughly divided into territories, with imperial suburb-states all butting up against each other, and the only way to grow is to march into the neighbouring land and take over. The new Brisbane team will need to play Monopoly: they will want to find property wherever they can on the board, bring it together into a portfolio with enough nous to generate sufficient revenue for them to survive.

The idea that the new Brisbane club has to represent a particular patch of suburbia is a foreign one. Our teams – the Broncos, the Roar, the Lions and even the Reds – represent far bigger expanses of land than that. You could make an argument that the Brisbane the Broncos represent stretches from Beenleigh to Rockhampton.

Consequently, discussions about juniors catchments and population growth seem a bit redundant. If you have the scouts, there’s nothing stopping anyone from scouting juniors in south-east Queensland and signing them to a scholarship. If you have the marketing, there’s nothing stopping your fans from coming from the north side and the south side of the river.

In any case, suburban clubs don’t necessarily make for good NRL clubs (c.f. most of Sydney’s teams) but they do bring a mythology and a geographically narrow notional purpose. That’s what appeals about the Dolphins’ and the Jets’ bids. They’re just missing the reality of being able to operate a NRL franchise and can probably bridge that gap with enough money.

Of course, this mythology helps gloss over the other reality. The Dolphins were far from the most successful BRL club, winning in 1965 with the next coming long after the Broncos had suffocated that competition and more recent wins coming thanks to partnerships with NRL clubs.

As the Broncos were to the Brisbane Rugby League, so the Jets were to the Ipswich Rugby League. Having only existed since 1985 and won a single premiership in that time (with the infamous Walker Brothers at the helm), I don’t know if the Jets have really offered the people of Ipswich all that much and perhaps nothing compared to their own, earlier established clubs. Some of that is moot as the nominal Jets bid is basically the Bombers bid but with a different aircraft moniker. There’s been little discussion about the so-called Western Corridor and more discussion about their potential financial shortcomings.

The Firehawks have divorced themselves from their own mythology with a new name and tweaked colours, partly involuntarily due to the pre-existing Tigers in the NRL, but still hoping to strike out and create something new. In some ways, this is sensible. No one really knows what the appetite is going to be for the second Brisbane team or what the expectations will be and to not marry yourself too tightly to a singular vision offers some flexibility to react what the market actually wants and not what extremely online footy nerds think.

The fact is that we just don’t know a lot about the bids. We can react to colours and logos and nicknames but these things don’t matter so much and certainly not over the long term. That the online reaction is almost overwhelmingly negative tells me nothing. These people aren’t the target demographic and what they think is immaterial to the success of a new franchise.

Easts Tigers unveiled a strategic plan in 2020 to take them through to 2022 which hinted at some things normally discussed in boardrooms that that might be relevant to their bid (this, of course, has gone unnoticed by the media). Nick Livermore is happy to offer quotes in the media but is light on detail or, for that matter, lip service to the idea of the Western Corridor, let alone an Indigenous spin on the club’s branding. The Dolphins haven’t said much other than to suggest they might be the Brisbane or Moreton Bay or Sunshine State Dolphins.

If the NRL is expanded, I don’t have any particularly great hopes for the new franchise. I’d like there to be a (good) local derby partner for the Broncos. I’d like there to be a greater Queensland presence in the professional ranks of rugby league. I’d also like to see the NRL get bigger and richer and use that power to go to strange new places. But the NRL won’t do that.

The broadcasters have signalled minimal interest in a new team that doesn’t provide any additional content or offer a panacea to declining ratings. The incumbent clubs do not want to share their money or resources or spotlight or fans with a new intruder. Given that, the question remains as to where the NRL will find the new team’s central distribution payments. Surely they won’t follow Super League’s lead and allow teams to operate without central funding (see Toronto, Leigh) and surely there aren’t that many development officers left at HQ that can be let go. Then who will fund Gus Gould’s dreams of world (rugby league) domination?

It’s not even clear that the people of Brisbane are that interested in having a second team. The crowds for the plethora of games in late 2021 have been underwhelming, a far cry from the festival of footy that is Magic Round. There’s no grassroots wave of support, online or in the real world, to indicate that anyone is actually excited by the prospect of a new team, other than those who have given up on their current teams getting any better.

Perhaps we are all just exhausted by the never-ending pandemic. Perhaps it seems so inconsequential compared to the swirl of six agains and ping-ponging from reckless abandon to martial law and back again when it comes to acceptable tackle technique. Perhaps it’s just not that interesting.

The new team will be a goth in a school of jocks, unable to reconcile its place in the league because its not really wanted or needed but is there anyway, to serve a purpose that is not at all clear. This is because the NRL cannot reconcile its place within the national culture and refuses to even acknowledge that it needs to do so.

So we go around and around and wait for something to break.