A potential second Brisbane team could lead to an 18th NRL franchise, possibly in New Zealand, as the code moves from a survival phase caused by the coronavirus pandemic to one of short and long-term growth.
The NRL last week announced a $24.7 million loss for 2020 - a remarkable figure given the fears for the game’s finances when the Telstra Premiership was suspended on March 23, and a deficit that would have been just $3.7 million if revenue from November’s State of Origin series was included.
The commitment of the game’s broadcast partners, sponsors and players, coupled with cuts of $50 million from NRL expenditure, has ensured the game is in a strong position to look to the future and there are a series of reviews either underway now or due to start.
“The plan for the NRL is to stabilise, renovate and then grow,” NRL CEO Andrew Abdo said.
“We have to stay vigilant, we are going to have to get through a very complicated 2021 season, vaccines are still being rolled out and we are not sure what is going to happen with borders so we can’t take our eye of the ball.
“But at the same time we are busy laying the foundations for some very exciting long-term initiatives, whether it be how we develop talent, where we play and where our clubs are, or whether it is about the international game.
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“You have to develop an ambitious long-term vision and then make sure that as you work through the renovation phase we are setting ourselves up for that.”
Among the ideas being considered are:
- Introducing a player transfer window and central contract registration system;
- Overhauling the Rugby League Accredited Player Agent Scheme;
- Using technology to improve the game-day experience for fans;
- Creating a network of boutique stadiums across Sydney;
- Increasing the number of rounds and teams in the NRLW;
- Developing the Nines format;
- Growing participation numbers, and;
- Expanding the number of NRL teams.
“Considering whether a 17th team is viable fits under that growth phase,” Abdo said. “We haven’t been that explicit about it but a 17th team is a step to 18 teams.
“Moving to 17 teams wouldn’t be an end point. It gets you closer to 18 teams and obviously 18 teams gives you a few different options.
“An 18th team allows you to think about what we might want to do about expanding in New Zealand. Having two teams in New Zealand creates a tribalism and a new rivalry in New Zealand.
“It also gives you options around pools because you can have two pools of nine teams. As you see with some of the big US sports, as you grow your competition and the scale of the number of teams, you can create a dynamic around who plays who and ultimately create more rivalries in regional areas and have competitions within competitions.
“You have to begin with the end in mind, you have to always keep an eye on the long term and you have to think about what is moving you closer to becoming an even more sustainable and relevant and viable sport.”
If the NRL introduces a second Brisbane team in 2023, it will be the first new franchise since the Gold Coast Titans joined the premiership in 2007 and Melbourne Storm were before them in 1998, so an 18th team may be some way off.
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However, it is an insight into the game’s strategy for growth under the leadership of Abdo and ARLC chairman Peter V’landys.
“It’s bold and it is ambitious but because we have worked so hard to preserve cash we are actually in a position that we can invest,” Abdo said.
Covid-19 forced the NRL to make some tough financial decisions and costs were slashed, players forced to take pay cuts and broadcast deals re-negotiated to ensure the game survived.
Remarkably, 98 per cent of sponsors maintained their commitment to the game as the NRL resumed on May 28 and completed a 20-round competition before the finals and Origin series.
“That was key to us protecting our position as much as possible because we had extraordinary costs with charter flights [for teams] and the medical protocols we had to cover, the additional support we had to provide to the clubs and the additional costs related to the relocation of the Warriors and the Storm.
“We needed to be ready for other possible relocations as we were never sure how much money we would need as a provision to make sure we completed the season.
“The key outcome of that was to make sure we preserved cash, that we didn’t incur debt and we were able to support all 16 clubs, who were able to stay solvent.
“That was critical so we were able to start the 2021 season intact, which we are now, and by preserving cash and the balance sheet we are now able to invest.”
Having survived the worst, the NRL is now ready to start thinking of the future and looking at opportunities to improve the game.
“If we use the metaphor of a freak storm damaging your house, we are now in the phase where it is still raining but the storm by and large has passed,” Abdo said.
“It may come back so we need to make sure that we rebuild the house so that it can withstand another storm but equally we are not going to rebuild the same house we had before because when you have had your house shattered by an external event it is a great opportunity, if you are on a great piece of land, to take better advantage of that.”
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Of course, Abdo believes rugby league is the sporting equivalent of prime real estate and the NRL is looking at ways to take advantage of that.
“The focus isn’t just on being more efficient and more effective internally but also thinking of innovative ways we can give better experiences to our fans by investing in the live game experience,” he said.
“We want to make it even more of an entertainment experience by developing a live game app or using technology at grounds to really amplify what it is like to watch a game live.
“We have a game that is built on tribalism so bringing that colour and atmosphere back to the big rivalry matches is really important for us."
A decision is expected to be made mid-year on whether to admit a 17th team but the prospect of a Brisbane derby would appear to fit into the NRL’s long-term strategy.
All three bids have links with long-established Queensland Cup clubs - Redcliffe Dolphins, Brisbane Firehawks (Easts Tigers) and Brisbane Bombers/Western Corridor consortium (Ipswich Jets) - and ready-made fan bases.
“The research shows us that we already have footprints in the greater Brisbane area where there is strong following from a participation base and a strong following from a fan base,” Abdo said.
“We have to test that to make sure we are not cannibalising the Broncos or the Titans but our initial data shows us that there are large catchment areas and existing franchises that have a strong participation base, access to great facilities and fans.
“We have seen in a number of other sports that when you have a second franchise in a city that creates a very powerful local rivalry which is good commercially for the existing franchises – just think of Manchester United v Manchester City or the AFL strategy around two teams in Adelaide and two teams in Perth.”
In Sydney, the growth strategy relates to stadia improvements for fans through the code’s relationship with the NSW Government, while the NRL is also looking further afield to increase numbers of players and followers of the game.
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“Growth relates to the number of fans we have so we are thinking about how we can grow new markets, not just in Australia but in New Zealand and the Pacific, and how we can connect and grow the strength of rugby league participation in those areas and the elite game as well, which then obviously flows on to the international game,” Abdo said.
“We have such wonderful products; we have touch, we have tag, we have the tackle format and we also have the short-form format of tackle in Nines, which has largely been unexploited.
“The growth phase is the mindset of how can we make it even more inclusive, how can we grow women’s participation, how can we include the hundreds of thousands of people who are engaged in touch football and connect them to an NRL club and to an elite game experience
“It’s infrastructure, participation and, of course, where we play by taking major events to growth markets for us and also thinking potentially about whether we want to expand and grow the number of clubs that we have.”