Tag Archives: expansion

Big brain essay #2: Growing trees or growing grass

It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on pythagonrl.com. I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.

When talking about how they’d like the sport to look, rugby league nerds, including yours truly, like to put pins in the map. The thinking is that if you put enough teams in big cities then the rest will take care of itself. In reality, most of those teams would fail. There’s few or no fans in those places, there’s barely any strategic considerations given, other than the need to be a player in big media markets, nor any meaningful thoughts as to how the new team will engage with the local population on a sustainable and lasting basis. The best case scenario is that each new team would cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to establish, as the Melbourne Storm did and the Toronto Wolfpack tried to do. It should go without saying that rugby league does not have that kind of cash to effectively buy new fans.

What’s interesting is how infrequently we discuss the structure of the club game – everyone has their preferred format for international tournaments between World Cups – and usually people just vary who is in Super League or the NRL with little thought put into how the different rugby leagues relate to each other or how their structure reflects an understanding of what these competitions, and rugby league, are for.

If you were to start FIFA (the video game, not the governing body) right now and create a customised competition, you’d have a choice of league, group stage then knockout, or straight knockout. Almost all sports use these frameworks to structure their competitions and there’s obviously only so many ways you can arrange head to head matches for a group of teams contesting a title.

At a higher level, you have the ultra-Darwinist domestic European soccer competitions, which are either round robin leagues with promotion and relegation or knockout formats and the two don’t mix. In contrast are the socialist American big four sports leagues, which have a league phase, usually with an unbalanced schedule and some sort of regionalisation, followed by a post season knockout. Pretty much every other team sport takes their cues from these two. I will concede that after a century and a half of experimentation, we’ve probably landed on the optimal outcome but I’m still interested in exploring this a little.

I find it somewhat puzzling that after so long, we can only imagine a couple of different ways for teams to play each other. This kind of thinking has even leaked into multi-competitor-sports, like NASCAR’s Playoffs, where it makes little sense but presumably someone thought it was a good idea for a late-season ratings boost. The recently retooled European soccer competitions – the Champion’s League, the Europa League and the Europa Conference League, as well as the UEFA Nations League – offer some alternatives, with complex qualification arrangements being employed to serve higher purposes. These competitions don’t just decide the best clubs in Europe but are purposely designed to give all participants some meaningful chance of winning a trophy and prize money.

***

Promotion and relegation has always sounded great in theory but relegation (and, indeed, sometimes promotion) can create existential crises that are otherwise not necessary. Sport’s rules don’t arise from some sense of natural law. Almost all aspects of sport have been arbitrarily decided in the past but we forget this with the convenient fog of time and tradition. Indeed, most traditions now are used as weapons to maintain the status quo in lieu of pursuing change and growth. So why persist?

What keeps the idea afloat in soccer is that even if relegation kills a club or two, there’s dozens ready to step up and take their place. In fact, in a twist of Victorian victim blaming, it’s the club’s fault for not being better prepared, which is ameliorated by parachute payments and leaves clubs on the bubble of leagues to bouncing back and forth. Moreover, pro-rel propagates the myth that any club can rise to the top if they just work hard enough, even though any talk of the long term prospects for a club is almost always couched in how much money can be invested. There is no realistic way to start a new club and use hard work alone to find a way to the top, especially through the last couple of leagues, and certainly not in a human lifespan. While the club works their way through levels nine and ten, the wealth of the top echelon of the top league grows faster still.

Given that, what is the point of promotion and relegation if it’s solely a function of how much money some lunatic is willing to put in? That hardly seems to be about sporting fairness. This kind of cognitive dissonance will eventually result in its elimination, which will very likely be in the favour of capital and closed leagues.

Pro-rel can work in international competitions, because the team exists because the country exists and countries generally don’t fold because of a sporting result, and in amateur competitions, where there’s no need to pay players and so revenue streams are substantially less critical to the existence of the club. Where the competitors are businesses, the change in revenue is often disastrous and the risks make planning and investment more difficult than they would otherwise need to be. The only benefit – which does not accrue to the relegated teams but instead the league they are being ejected from – is if there’s a ratings boost for potential relegation battles at the season’s end which would otherwise be ignored.

For rugby league, there are not the vast resources available to be allowed to waste on promotion and relegation. In the UK, there are 36 “professional” clubs. The loss of any one would be devastating – the money and effort and time invested becomes worthless – and risks dragging down the survivors. Further, the idea that pro-rel is some entrenched tradition is laughable. The RFL only introduced it in the early 70s. Prior to that, every club sat in the same, unwieldy 30-odd club league. There are people alive today who would remember a pre-pro-rel rugby league.

***

As I’ve suggested, Super League is at a crossroads. Crisis looms at every corner and it is crisis that is when the hard questions get asked and answered. The results of the Super League experiment since 1996 have been dismal, with only the switch from winter to summer being potentially worth salvaging to keep in sync with the sport’s other major league, and no other real, permanent gains to speak of. London, Crusaders, Paris, Sheffield and Toronto have failed to retain their place in the top flight for varying reasons. The separation of Super League from the RFL has only served to create a fiefdom of equally incompetent administrators and a duplication of infrastructure with no discernible purpose that looks almost certain to be undone after just two years. Crowds and the TV deal have seemingly peaked.

Now would seem like an opportune time to consider the competition’s place in rugby league, its place in British culture and how it might structure itself to reflect these and its own values. To do so, it would be worthwhile to consider how rugby league might move out of the shadow of soccer and union and whether it makes sense to try to replicate what they do or try something different.

I would like to make two suggestions, which will require some relatively radical departures from the norm.

Growing trees

The overall goal of expansion, growth and the rest of the lefty rugby league agenda seems to be to grow trees. That is, large and imposing clubs that can stand tall by themselves as markers of the existence of rugby league. Naturally, the most fertile ground for new life is big media markets, where a small sliver of attention from a large group of people can nourish a Wolfpack or a Storm.

However, there is a substantial disconnect between this vision of the future and the existing trees, who are afraid that the sun will be blotted out and aggressively fight new growth. To address this, we need to acknowledge the separate natures of the existing heritage clubs and modern expansion clubs. To that end, I suggest creating two separate streams for rugby league football clubs, a modernist Super League and a heritage Northern Union.

Super League would effectively become the championship of Europe. Run by the RFL, thanks to its marginally more progressive outlook than the clubs that currently run the professional game in England, the focus would be on teams in large markets to be the building blocks of a wide audience that would attract huge ratings or a committed subscriber base, coupled with vision, planning and the capability to implement it. Super League would aim to reach parity with the NRL, in terms of calendar, reach, wealth, structure, regulations and playing ability, so that the sport can have two legitimate major leagues.

The Northern Union then embraces the traditions of the game. The Northern Union can base its marketing around being the northern game, with its teams drawn from a very small geographical range, and in the extremely unlikely event that the northern half of England secedes, rugby league will have a purpose made professional sport for the new country before anyone else. The Northern Union could be run as Super League is now, for and by its member clubs, and they can set regulations and a fixture schedule that best suits their commercial outlook (e.g. 29 round season, primarily attracting away fans, other stereotypes, etc) and initially, with their own broadcast deal. Being a lower tier, its unlikely that an overly long season will compromise major representative teams. The Union would also have no need for expansion, that path being via Super League 2, suiting the more inward looking nature of many clubs and fans.

Based on the clubs currently in play, a realistic starting point might be to award a dual Super League/Northern Union licence to the relatively big market and/or well established clubs, such as Leeds, Warrington, St Helens, Wigan, Hull, Salford and Bradford (taking into account the various intangibles involved, which is still mostly sticking pins in a map, although Salford may not be suitable to be the Manchester team and my impressions of Bradford could be 10 years behind reality). This would allow these teams to run a first team in SL1 and an affiliated second team, either a reserves or juniors team or a revived alternative marque, in the Northern Union (e.g. Wigan could resurrect Wigan Highfield/Liverpool Stanley as a second team or the Devils would run as Manchester in SL1 and Salford in NU). There would be a further four Super League-only licences awarded to London, Catalans, Toulouse and York. The Super League licence gives the team immunity from relegation and for the dual licencees, prevents the second team from being promoted.

With eleven teams, the best Northern Union club would be promoted to take the league to twelve. Said club would be relegated for the champion of the Northern Union if they should finish in the bottom two or three places. Despite my personal distaste for pro-rel, it’d be politically difficult to remove and there are just not enough big clubs in Europe to sustain a reasonable sized Super League without it.

Underneath Super League is Super League 2, separate to the Northern Union. The purpose of Super League 2 is not to entertain or represent or anything but to create a space in which new clubs can get themselves set up. The make up of the league would be constantly changing, as clubs either graduate to SL1 or fail quietly in a place no one cares about. Clubs would be required to submit plans so that the institution of rugby league as a whole can help development of the clubs in a way that aligns with their vision and the SL/RFL can provide feedback, based on previous experience or their own masterplan, and the parties can work together for mutual benefit.

Not every team that enters Super League 2 will graduate or fail. Coventry or West Wales, for example, might choose to remain mainstays, preferring to focus on creating grassroots in their community, develop local talent and passing the talented up the chain to an affiliated SL1 club. Toronto, on the other hand, might have come in with a plan to be promoted to SL1 in two years, outlining the steps and targets they see as being necessary to get ready for the big time.

There would be far fewer regulations in order to facilitate the rapid growth of clubs as needed, perhaps just the same as those as govern the upper end of SL1, which will probably result in significant disparity across what is likely to be a small league (in the event there aren’t enough teams, the league should switch the SL/NU second teams across to pad out SL2). This is just the price we pay for this structure, unless there is a surprising uptake of new clubs in SL2. The initial SL2 clubs would be North Wales, West Wales, Coventry, London Skolars, Newcastle, Sheffield and Ottawa (if they ever make it on to the field), leaving seventeen clubs plus up to seven second teams (possibly one or two would be required in SL2) to contest the Northern Union.

The short term focus of SL1 would be maintaining some sort of commercial and sporting parity between the clubs, preferably by taking from the rich and investing in the poor. There are myriad vehicles for doing this. The key will be maintaining a ceiling (possibly the same ceiling for all professional clubs) but also having a relatively close floor to maintain standards. If a club cannot stand on the floor, it has no business being in the room and a salary cap is useless as a mechanism for parity without a salary floor. Some clubs are not currently configured for this but have the potential to be, with some work.

The medium term focus – over the next decade or so – would be to focus on preparing Sheffield and Newcastle to join SL1 from SL2 and investing now, laying the ground work with the locals, to give them a place in the top flight in the future. The long term focus – over the next twenty or more years – would be identifying the next candidates to follow them. Twenty years should be enough time to build up a London Skolars or North Wales Crusaders to be ready for the big time or even creating teams from scratch in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France (perhaps another tilt at Paris) or elsewhere in Europe in a shorter timeframe. Private investment will be required and the SL/RFL needs to have development officers for rich people to funnel the money into the correct places. The growing footprint of the game should result in a greater audience, improving sponsorship prospects and broadcast deals (or, more likely, an increase in subscribers).

If we must keep the knockout competitions, the Challenge Cup would become the equivalent of the League Cup in English soccer. It would only be open to the professional SL1, SL2 and NU clubs. The 1895 Cup would then be open only to Northern Union and amateur clubs. The purpose of both is clear: the Challenge Cup is inevitably dominated by the top flight professional clubs, so the biggest knockout competition is only open to the biggest clubs (the draw could also be engineered to ensure a NU or SL2 team makes the semis), which would have the dual benefit of reducing the number of rounds required. The 1895 Cup, recently introduced by the RFL to make the Challenge Cup final into a double header, can build its brand around being the competition open only to the “real” rugby league clubs, even though the final is likely to be still dominated by the top end of the Northern Union, at least the amateur clubs have a cost effective avenue for participation. You could swap the names on the competitions, it wouldn’t really matter.

The very long term plan would be ensuring new teams get added to Super League on a regular basis. As the future of rugby league is secured by its presence in big sporting markets, the number of Northern Union places in Super League could be increased to give greater heritage representation but one would hope that the gap between the Super League and Northern Union would grow to be so great over time, those clubs would simply not be able to compete and pro/rel would necessarily have to be eliminated. This should be considered a desirable outcome.

If NU clubs have the investment behind them, the demand is there and there is value to be added, then promoting a team can be decided in the board room, although I would expect it to be pretty rare that a NU could display that kind of value. The sport does not and is unlikely to ever have the resources required to support the flippancy of pro/rel. Super League simply cannot risk losing a big market team because they had a bad year, particularly considering the sunk investment and the total lack of value for big market teams in the second division, nor can it find the resources to ensure the gap between the first and second divisions remains bridgeable. It is already too great between Super League and the Championship and any actual growth is likely to exercebate it, rather than close it.

The barriers to this proposal are numerous. Clubs and fans aren’t going to want to be cut off from the top tier. Super League 2 is going to be expensive to run and very unlikely to attract a broadcast deal or much viewership. The Northern Union might actually be more popular than Super League, having more clubs in places where fans already exist, in which case, I don’t know if we can declare SL1 to be the top tier, especially if NU clubs can capitalise on this and out-spend the SL1 clubs. The Northern Union has been buried for a very long time and bringing back that brand now is extremely dubious. It’s not clear how squads can be managed shifting from a very low level SL2 to an elite SL1 without total disruption.

Still, the three leagues each would have a purpose and the framework would exist to offer Super League the opportunity to build itself into a position to compete as the complementary major league in Europe to the Asia-Pacific’s NRL.

Growing grass

The Football Bowl Subdivison is the top 130 or so college football teams in the US. Despite being the perfect candidate for a promotion and relegation setup, all the competing schools sit on ostensibly the same level. Almost all are divided into eleven conferences of differing sizes, which are broadly geographical and reflective of the status of the member schools, with some having regional divisions underneath. Notionally at least, all schools have a shot at the National Championship, although in reality, because of the somewhat subjective selection process for the final four teams, there is a limited subset of schools that are actually in the running, even before a game is played. For mine, the tension between the ridiculous structure of the sport, the ranking systems, the selection for the National Championship and the insane commitments to tradition and amateurism, makes college football interesting, even if the product is lacking.

One of rugby league’s strengths is its hyper-localisation. It elevates small places, that would otherwise have no right to be there, to the national stage in a way other sports can’t or won’t. While I am extremely dubious about this being a long term survival strategy, there’s no doubting this unique aspect of rugby league culture has value. Maintaining a local feel to the sport, compared to having well paid athletes flying all over the place, at least reduces the sport’s carbon footprint.

A hyper-local rugby leauge would look something like the college football landscape. Clubs would be divided into loosely defined conferences, with the winners qualifying to a round of play-offs to determine the champion. All 36 current RFL and SL clubs would be on the same level, spread across four conferences, each with a winner (or a winner and runner-up) qualifying for the post-season. There might even be some scope for clubs to set some of their own non-conference fixtures.

Players would be paid but to maintain some parity and prevent big places from having an advantage over small places, the commercial ceiling for clubs would have to be set very low, possibly so low that a floor is not needed. Rugby league will lose its talents to better paid opportunities elsewhere but that’s the price we would have to pay to maintain locality, especially if places like Palau and Featherstone are expected to be able to maintain competitive professional sports teams. If individual clubs’ cups run over, then they would be encouraged to set up distinct teams in other places. The alternative, to deregulate entirely, is a great way to ensure there are only half a dozen clubs are left standing.

The big advantage is then that it doesn’t cost a lot to set up a new rugby league team and there is a known ceiling on how much can be spent or lost. This should appeal to wealthy people who want to own a sports team but cannot afford a soccer, union or whatever franchise. There are numerous villages, suburbs and towns that could host a new team and with low costs, there’s plenty of time to build up a fanbase and take a long term view. It also offers the opportunity for alternative ownership models – especially fan and community owned – as the barrier to entry is much lower. Crucially, the new team enters at the top (only) level with an almost immediate shot at the title.

The other advantage is that its easy to facilitate expansion and easy to add leagues whole cloth. If, as perhaps should be the case, Elite One and Two were folded into the RFL system, we’d have fifty-four clubs that could be divied into five or six conferences. Think something along the lines of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northumbria, South England, Elite East and Elite West (or adopting the equivalent American-style names, e.g. “The Big Yorkie”) conferences. The winner of each would progress to the post-season, probably with an additional round for the runners-up to fight it out for the remaining slots.

New teams would have to provide very little evidence that they are sustainable, so would be able to go through a basic tick box exericse and find a conference to join. If it seems unimpressive now, this system could be expanded indefinitely, provided enough owners can be found, perhaps with two or three hundred clubs across Europe divided into twenty or thirty conferences and creating a monster round-of-32 post-season bracket. Big cities would simply house lots of clubs, as Sydney and London do now, and diffuse themselves across different conferences.

It’s difficult to see how that wouldn’t attract a mass audience eventually, albeit none of the individual clubs would have large followings and indeed, probably very small followings but with similarly small revenues, costs and debts. Soccer fans complain about money ruining the game and the divorce between the clubs and their communities. This structure is purpose-built to keep clubs small and close to their communities, while engaging with a larger geographical area because rugby league doesn’t have to choose to be bound by national borders, as soccer has chosen to do.

Under this regime, if kept, the Challenge Cup serves a new purpose to put teams in competition with teams they would not normally play against and perhaps this would be utilised in lieu of clubs setting their own fixture list. The 1895 Cup would serve no purpose, just as it does now, so can be put in the bin.

The champions of the European Rugby League conferences wouldn’t necessarily be able to compete with the champions of the NRL (assuming it maintains its current format), being far smaller and far less wealthy, but the competition as a whole might be able to generate interest just through its sheer scale.

***

The English game needs to make a decision about what it wants to be. Is it licencing or pro-rel? Alternating between the two suits no one but because there’s such a disparity between the top end of town and the rest, the system not in use looks more appealling than the one in use. This time it’ll be different. It’s this change that’ll resolve the unaddressed problems somehow but I don’t know how that can be if no one confronts what the problem is in the first place. My suggestions are that the dead weight is carved off into its competition to (mostly) let the rest of rugby league get on with it or that all clubs are cut to the same size and spec.

People will hate these suggestions and not just because its change but because they fundamentally disagree that this is how the sport should be configured. That’s fine, although if you cite tradition, I’ll just point out that is the peer pressure of dead people and I don’t care what they think. But the current system doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so why not try something new*?

*I also accept that there’s nothing really new under the sun. As reported by Rugby League Digest, pretty much every time I think I’ve come up with something clever, I found it was considered and discarded during the Super League war. I don’t think this reflects the merits of a given idea, given that no side seemed really interested in compromise, and the status quo looks great simply because we’ve doing it for a while.

BNE2.1: The game done changed

“It is, at the end of the day, all rather stupid”

Last year was an illuminating time for those who closely follow the working man’s game. If, like me, you’ve only been a keen trainspotter for a few years, we might not remember older train wrecks, like Crusaders. Conveniently, the Toronto Wolfpack experience, which saw $30 million pissed down the toilet for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, brought some truths about the sport into very clear focus.

At a certain point, possibly while mulling things over for too long without live sport or being able to socialise, it clicked in my mind that it didn’t matter how well thought out an expansionist’s plan might be, it will never be implemented. There is no perfect post that will change anyone’s mind. This may be obvious to you but sometimes I can be very dense.

My silver lining on the new Brisbane NRL team is then dubiously reasoned, if not downright naive, in retrospect. While a Brisbane team could be leveraged commercially to take the game west (again), it will not be. Instead, it will be used to shore up Nine’s failing ratings in Queensland, as the three extant clubs flail about hopelessly. That’s just who the people running the game are, especially Peter V’landys and especially Phil Gould. Two shitty suburban culture warriors in the pocket of a free-to-air broadcaster are the Pacific game’s leading lights and that’s why we have two point field goals now.

It is, at the end of the day, all rather stupid. You won’t find a more Darwinian sporting observer than yours truly but even with my complete and utter lack of regard for tradition, introducing a team solely for the benefit of a legacy media organisation in 2023 is too far for me. For the sport as a whole to make money, by all means, do what you got to do. Even the Super League schism had some benefits for rugby league by forcing it to modernise somewhat. Who really gives a fuck if the only benefit is that Channel Nine survives a bit longer?

The thing of it is that there’s barely any risk for the NRL. You personally are not going to lose your team if the new Brisbane team fails, because you are not a fan of that team. No one is because it doesn’t exist. The NRL isn’t investing any money or taking any equity as far as I know, so there’s no financial risk. If the team fails, at worst the resulting quagmire might take out a storied Queensland Cup club (and, as recent events have clearly indicated, no one in Sydney cares about them) and the NRL suffers a bit of reputational blowback. If it works, ratings go up on Nine, the next TV deal is better and the NRL can profit. That money will be recycled on to the existing clubs in the form of higher club grants because Phil Gould believes the NRL is make-believe and the clubs are the only reality, which explains why North Sydney fans didn’t mind their club exiting first class football and we’ve never heard about it since.

The money will be wasted, as usual with Queensland clubs subsidising Sydney no-hopers, instead of being invested in making the sport better because that’s just what happens.

The candidates

Now that nasty cynicism is out of the way, here’s some more. After the Bombers and Western Corridor bids merged, there are now three candidates: Dolphins, Firehawks and Jets, representing Redcliffe, Eastern Suburbs Brisbane and Ipswich, respectively.

You shouldn’t rate the Queensland Cup’s popularity on how much I talk about it but rather based on the fact that it won’t be on TV this year. The idea that each club has community links is not unreasonable but those links represent very few people in the grand scheme of things and a lot of them are going to be conflicted about leaving the Broncos for a new venture. For mine, the three bids are now pretty much the same, so it’ll probably come down to who knows the ARLC best and/or who has the most money.

The recent merger has meant that the Western Corridor bid has dropped the Western Corridor aspect of their bid to become “Brisbane”, which makes much more commercial sense but is questionable if you purportedly represented the hitherto-culturally-non-existent Logan-Ipswich-Toowoomba conglomeration. The Indigenous angle they were taking is gone too. Presumably, the Jets team noticed the stance Peter V’Landys took prior to last year’s All Stars game regarding the anthem and read between the lines on his feelings about black people.

Similarly, the Bombers have dropped their name and replaced it with another imperialist death machine but at least one that has some rugby league history (stolen, like so many things, from the NFL), so kudos. As a result, the Jets have joined forces with an organisation that stands for nothing other than their own gain to give it a light patina of community respectability. In many ways, it is the perfect bid because there is so little to it, it can be moulded into whatever the powers that be want it to be. This will almost certainly be worse than what people could come up with organically (see above re: two point field goals), starting with an incredibly omnious 9/11 themed logo (which obviously may not be real).

Whichever bid is successful, people and specifically, people on Twitter who aren’t fans and will never be fans of the new club, will hate everything about it – logo, name, colours. I note the hypocrisy but I at least know that it won’t matter. Twitter’s usefulness as a barometer on rugby league matters is only as a contraindicator and we wait with bated breath for the exit polls from Facebook and the Daily Telegraph to see which way Peter V’Landys is going to go.

In any case, Brisbane is so starved of NRL, it’ll probably work, especially after a sold out all-Queensland double header at Suncorp results in the destruction of a large part of the city.

The TV deal

The most frequent question asked in relation to BNE2 is “how does adding a 17th team result in higher ratings?” It’s a good one because there obviously isn’t going to be a ninth match each weekend and instead one team will sit on the sidelines with a bye. Here’s the theory that I think Nine, V’Landys and co are working with:

  1. Even if BNE2 is half as successful as the Broncos, it’ll still rate better than most of the league. That means, most weeks will remove ratings anchors like the Knights, Sea Eagles, Bulldogs and Raiders and replace them with an above average team, which will improve the overall ratings across the season, even without adding a game.
  2. The current FTA arrangement has a hard cap on the number of times a team can appear on free-to-air (I believe it is currently 16 for the Broncos and 12 for everyone else) and another cap on how many return fixtures are allowed per club (Nine might show both legs of Broncos-Cowboys, Broncos-Eels and Broncos-Rabbitohs but then wouldn’t be able to show both legs of, e.g., Broncos-Titans). By adding a second Brisbane team, this allows Nine to have more Broncos-equivalent games, with a Brisbane team on FTA every weekend. This also explains the inexplicable increase in Dragons FTA appearances for 2021 because they’d run out of good teams to show.
  3. Nine sells all of its content to regional networks at what amounts to a fixed rate and so doesn’t care how well football rates in the sticks. Its revenue is driven by the five city metro ratings. From Nine’s point of view, the Gold Coast Titans are a regional football team and they probably don’t see them as moving ratings in the Brisbane market. That the Titans are just “down the road” doesn’t factor in.
  4. A second Brisbane team then is likely to uplift Brisbane’s ratings more, and more often, when compared to how a Perth team would lift ratings in Perth.
  5. The recent broadcast renegotiations allowed for the deal to be improved if a new team is added.

I think its extremely likely that ratings will go up in the short term (or, more accurately, go down less quickly) after BNE2 comes in, even just for novelty purposes. Even if it doesn’t last or the broadast deal doesn’t go up by enough to cover the club grant, I’m sure the ARLC will just boot the Warriors or Storm to compensate.

BNE2 or, On Expansion and its relationship with Brisbane

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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Redcliffe Dolphins

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.

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Easts Tigers

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.

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Western Corridor

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.

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Brisbane Bombers

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.

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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.

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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A study in rugby league mortality

We’re talking about the clubs, not actual people, so it probably won’t be as depressing as the title implies.

This started out as an examination of which rugby league club could claim to be the best expansion team, in the same vein as the Vegas Golden Knights who disputed the NHL’s Stanley Cup in their first season. It would surprise no one to discover that the Melbourne Storm are the best expansion team of all time in rugby league, taking all of two seasons to win a premiership and then winning another four two in just twenty years of life. That kind of precociousness is hated in children and it seems would also apply to the Victorians.

Instead, what I found more interesting was how many clubs had fallen by the wayside. The original Northern Union was founded in 1895 with twenty-two clubs while the New South Wales Rugby Football League was founded in 1908 with just nine members. How many of those were still standing after all this time?

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Opinion – More Cap test cases for NRL expansion

Last time, we went off-piste and moved from rigorous analysis to speculative analysis. Let’s go further off-piste and apply Cap in ways that it was never meant to be (that’s why we’ve switched from “Analysis” to “Opinion”, even I have my limits).

Brisbane

Because of the capacity constraints discussed a few weeks ago, it’s a bit hard to judge just how popular NRL expansion would be in Brisbane. Using some Cap metrics, we can estimate what an “optimal” number of clubs might look like.

If we only care about maintaining a 15,000 average attendance, then:

  • 6 teams would give a Cap of 2.2
  • 5 teams = 2.6
  • 4 teams = 3.3
  • 3 teams = 4.4
  • 2 teams = 6.5

On the other hand, if we use the relationship between teams per capita and Cap developed a few weeks ago:

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