Home > The Final Word > NRL Expansion – Where to for the future?

NRL Expansion – Where to for the future?

The last couple of weeks has seen much written about the bids for an NRL franchise in 2013, and as an interested party, I will go through each bid, and analyse not only its pros and cons, but the realistic likelihood of  the new Independent Commission choosing them to join the competition. Despite the comments of the NRL’s most recent expansion club CEO Micheal Searle, who said that expansion is unlikely until around 2016, the NRL will be looking to move into new areas to prop up a new TV rights deal due in 2013.

Firstly, I’ll outline what is probably going to be looked out most closely by the commission in regard to these bids.

1. Financial Stability – With the game looking to increase private investment, and decrease reliability on the governing body to provide funds, each of the bids will need significant financial backing in the way of sponsors and/or members. This will most certainly be key to the success of any bid.

2. Infrastructure – The bids will also need the specific infrastructure to support the team and their needs. This will include an adequate stadium, training ground and administration offices.

3. The Market – This, in my opinion, would be close the the most important part of the bid, and the reasons for this will become more evident as I go through each bid. Does the new franchise add to the market, or simply compliment it?

I’ve got what are the bids which have been created already, although there is a strong likelihood that more will come in as it gets closer to the IC looking at them. So far, the bids are Central Coast, Ipswich, Central Queensland, Darwin, Perth, Wellington and PNG.

Central Coast Bears

Probably the most publicised bid of them all, the Central Coast Bears is essentially a relocation of the foundation club North Sydney, and brings back painful memories of the failed Northern Eagles on the Central Coast. The calls from many within the rugby league fraternity have been for a Central Coast team for some time, but this is probably their best bid for a little while.

Pros: The Central Coast provides a financially stable bid, with significant investment already including a major sponsor in Mortgage House. There is also infrastructure in place with Central Coast Stadium in Gosford, and relevant training facilities in place. In addition, the massive junior base is a massive plus for the Central Coast.

Cons: The market. Essentially, although this may be seen as the plus, it could work significantly against this bid. The NRL want a club that will create new support for the NRL, and the demographics of an NRL community on the Central Coast will probably not do this, rather take regional support away from established clubs. In addition, there is a huge risk of supporter revolt against a failed franchise from North Sydney and the Northern Eagles.

Conclusion: Unfortunately this doesn’t look like the right bid for the area. I think a team could be successful there, but the ‘Bears’ franchise is the wrong one for the area, and rehashes too many memories of previous fails. From the view of the average punter, the Central Coast is the perfect place, but questions will be asked about how it adds to the market of the game, and more specifically, what it can add to a TV rights deal and a game investment. In short, it is probably very little.

Ipswich

This is the second Brisbane franchise which has emerged in the last week. They are to be based out of Ipswich, but play out of Suncorp Stadium, and with an established rugby league community in Brisbane, compete with the Broncos and create a healthy QLD rivalry.

Pros: There is an established rugby league mad community in Brisbane and infrastructure in place for the team to get off the ground pretty well. The market is clearly sustainable of supporting another team and there is some financial interest from the Brisbane Thoroughbreds group, who had previously been behind the Broncos.

Cons: In a similar vein to the Central Coast, they would be splitting the most successful franchise in the NRL in the Broncos, whilst only creating minimal new support for the game. There would also be the same questions about the TV deal, and whilst another QLD team would enable another live game into QLD, its the same people who already watch the Broncos, Titans and Cowboys.

Central Queensland

The Central Queensland bid out of Rockhampton is probably one of the most sensible and strong bids in contention. The bid gap between Brisbane and Townsville would be filled with another team, and create more QLD rivalries for the NRL.

Pros: The QLD market is one which the NRL are very keen on capitalising on, and this creates the perfect opportunity for it. There is a massive gap between Brisbane and Townsville that has been crying out for a team, and this bid should do that. Financially, there is good resources money and government money looking to back the bid, and a state-of-the-art stadium ready to be built. There is also a massive junior base for this area which could assist the stability of the bid.

Cons: The infrastructure could be a problem for this bid. Although the plans are in an advanced stage, there isn’t actually a stadium built, and this could work against the bid. They may have some problems attracting players to the area, but this couldn’t count too heavily against the bid.

Darwin

This is a heavily government backed bid, with the NT government looking to bring major sporting teams to the region. This is a relatively untapped market by the way of sporting organisations, so it should provide an interesting area.

Pros: This is an untapped market, with plenty of potential. The government backing helps significantly with the financials, and a team here would expose the game to many more people than previously. Although rugby league may not be established there, it has the potential to create massive amounts of new fans. This also presents the opportunity to move into a market which the AFL is not in, a significant jump on their southern rivals.

Cons: Whilst there is significant history of rugby league in NT back to the 1940s, the junior base is relatively limited. There is also limited infrastructure at the moment, although government help could push this along.

Perth

Another heavily publicised bid, Perth is the growth area of the country, and despite previous failures in the area, is seen as a high potential bid.

Pros: The area is one of the few in the country which has money rolling in, so investment would be strong. There is perfect infrastructure already in place, which was established for the Western Force. In addition, the Perth bid probably adds the most to the market, with the ability for another live TV game with the time difference, and the potential to create countless rugby league fans from a small but established junior base which has already created more NRL players than Victoria.

Cons: The main thing working against Perth is the hangover from the failed Western Reds franchise. Much like with the Central Coast, there is a massive need for differentiation from former incarnations of Perth teams.

Wellington

A second team in New Zealand has been called for for a while, and the time is not going to get any better with the Kiwis World Cup and Four Nations champions. There is some debate about where is should be, but Wellington as the capital is the most logical.

Pros: With the NZ game reaching great heights in recent times, the time is now for expansion into this region. Much like Perth, it creates another team in a different time-zone, and a potential NZ derby. A significant junior base and established infrastructure are in place, also assisting the chances.

Cons: There is a thought that with a second team in NZ, it needs to be on the South Island. A second team on the North Island may not expand the market much like one on the South Island would. There is also some questions about financial stability with no major investment announced.

PNG

For the only country in the world where rugby league is the national sport, a team in the NRL seams logical. They have created various NRL players, and bring an undeniable spirit to the game that nobody else can match.

Pros: As mentioned above, rugby league is the national sport in PNG. Although it may seem that is may not add many more supporters, most PNG rugby league people don’t have a team to support in the NRL, and so team in the area would create more NRL support. There is also significant government support, and a major junior base.

Cons: There are major problems with the financials for a PNG team, with only really government support behind the bid. There is also significant issues with infrastructure and planning in the area.

Conclusions

With a number of bids on the table, this is a very big decision that the new commission is going to have to make. In my opinion, they are likely to take two teams on, simply to keep the even number of teams, and avoid byes each week.

The Perth bid and the Central Queensland bid are my two picks to get up. The Perth bid ticks all three boxes, and is the growth area of the country at the moment. In the case of the Central Queensland bid, it is in rugby league’s heartland of Queensland, and closes the gap between Brisbane and Townsville. If you look at the expansions taken on by the AFL, which as a business is probably 10-15 years ahead of the NRL as a result of the Super League wars, there expansions were into new markets, which both of these present, but both markets were established sports loving markets. Central Queensland is previously untested as a sporting capital, but has been crying out for sport.

In any event, it is an interesting time for the NRL, with the Independent Commission just months away from completion, despite the cynical and self-indulgent comments by the NRL’s current ‘leader’ this past week, and good times are ahead for the game. Let us know where you think the NRL should expand into next.

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