Recently John Grant issued an ultimatum to NRL clubs. I’m paraphrasing here, but it boiled down to get your shit together.
NRL clubs together lost a total of 42.7 million dollars in 2015 and with the much publicised bailouts of clubs like the Tigers, Newcastle and Titans, it looks like Grant wants to avoid future bailouts for the other 10 clubs that failed to make a profit last year (only the Broncos, Rabbitohs and Warriors made a profit in 2015).
The NRL itself made a loss of 18 million in 2015, although as John Grant has said, this is due to long overdue investments directed towards growing the game. After decades of poor management the NRL is doing its best to catch up to the AFL.
To do that, they need to invest. It’s a solid rationale, and with the new TV rights deal pretty much on par with the AFL, it bodes well for the future of the game.
But for the game to have a truly rosy future, it needs to do a lot more. For one, it’s clear that clubs themselves are struggling. This is for a myriad of reasons; lack of professional diversity and poor management being some, too many Sydney sides being another.
Truth is, if the game wants to grow and actually compete with the AFL as the national game it is going to have to make some hard decisions.
First of all, it has to become a national game.
The AFL has a presence in every state bar Tasmania (ed note: what about that stuff on Hawthorn’s jersey?). The NRL doesn’t. That needs to change. Like the AFL, to expand into “hostile” territory, it is going to have to pony up the cash and be patient, just like the AFL has with Brisbane, Sydney and more recently the Gold coast and Greater Western Sydney. While I can see Grant’s frustration at propping up poorly run established clubs, an investment in growth across the country is something that will increase the value of the game and be worth it in the long term.
One of the difficulties that new clubs have always faced has been establishing rivalries. The truth is, it’s really hard to compete with 100 years of tradition. It takes time. However, if the NRL does expand, this process can be sped up by adopting a conference system. While conference systems are foreign in Australian sport, they are the done thing in the US and they create both interest and excitement for fans and mean that every region of interest at least has a horse in the race come finals time. This can only be a good thing when it comes to growing the game. They also facilitate within conference rivalries. There is a set of sides that you are competing against above all else. Games within your conference matter.
So, my vision for what the NRL should do is this:
Relocate the West Tigers to Perth. The name is perfect and the club is a basket case. You know it makes sense.
Bone Cronulla. Its time to put them out of their misery. It has been coming for a long time.
Getting these two teams out of Sydney un-clutters a massively cluttered market. Tradition is nice and all, but its clear that Sydney can’t sustain 8 professional teams. The sooner they address this the better.
Bring in three new sides to make it an 18 team comp. I’d suggest an Adelaide side, a second Brisbane side and a second NZ side.
Adopt a conference system with three conferences: a “Northern conference” which would be the four Queensland sides and the two New Zealand sides; a “Sydney conference” which would be the six remaining Sydney sides; and a “Regions conference” which would be Canberra, St George-Illawara, Newcastle, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.
Each conference plays the other sides in its conference twice and the sides outside their conference once, making it a 22 week season. Each conference gets two spots in the finals, leaving two wildcard spots to be taken by the two best performing sides outside the top two.
Unlike the current system, where rivalries and schedules are somewhat ad hoc, this system entrenches the games people want to watch (derbies), helps build rivalries and tradition for new clubs and guarantees that all of the regions of interest have a place in the finals helping to grow the game across the country. This would give the NRL one of its only advantages over the AFL, which the NRL desperately needs if it is going to compete. Matching the AFL for professionalism, for TV rights isn’t going to cut it. The NRL needs a hook. I believe a conference system could be just that.
You know it makes sense!