Has the penny finally dropped for the NRL when it comes to expansion?
Some comments from Rugby League Commission chairman John Grant today would indicate that the governing body of the sport is finally recognising that the sport needs to expand as soon as 2018, when the next television deal kicks in.
While on-hand to showcase a new base for the sport in Queensland – opposite Suncorp Stadium, Grant acknowledged the need to make better use of the huge appetite South-East Queensland has for rugby league.
“We have flagged the fact when you look at where the players are placed and where the fans are placed there is a marketplace in Queensland that is potentially not being taken advantage of,’’ Grant said.
“We have provisions (in the free-to-air broadcast agreement) for a 17th team in Brisbane.’’
While these are the first real positive comments around expansion to come out of the mouths of those trusted with running the sport, not only does the game need another franchise based in Brisbane but also one out west in Perth.
There are two ways the NRL could expand – one would be to add two additional franchises and increase the number of teams in the competition but also split the pie an extra two ways in the process. The other possibility is to do something radical and keep the number of clubs at 16 but remove two clubs from the crowded Sydney market. There are certainly indications this year that Sydney is over-saturated with games. A way to resolve that would be to decrease the number of teams based there.
There are a few contenders – some that have struggled on the field and financially as well. The NRL has bailed out a couple of leading contenders. Western Sydney is prime rugby league heartland but it is currently catered for in part between the likes of the Bulldogs, the Tigers, the Eels and the Panthers. Could removing the latter three and putting together a super team out west be a step in the right direction for the sport? Imagine a team out west on the same level or better than the Broncos, Rabbitohs or Roosters in terms of playing strength and supporter numbers. Doing something that radical would free up two licenses for a second Brisbane team and a Perth side.
The NRL has tried to merge teams before without much success. The Northern Eagles venture failed immediately, the Wests Tigers have been an ongoing problem child for the game and the Dragons basically took over the Illawarra Steelers in that merger. Sure, kicking teams out hasn’t been that successful either – think the Souths example and there is still ill-feeling in North Sydney without their beloved Bears. But if they removed teams and then began a brand new replacement franchise from scratch as such, maybe that would work better. It would be risky alienating fans of three teams in one of the most vital locations for the sport however.
An 18-team competition seems the most logical argument – it provides an extra game each weekend and, if Perth was one of those locations, it also offers an extra time zone for television companies to take advantage of.
A decision is needed pretty soon however if these potential new franchises are to be up and running by 2018. Let’s hope the rumours aren’t true and that John Grant and chief executive Dave Smith are indeed on speaking terms – they need to do a bit of that to make this happen pronto.