To Expand or Not – That is the Question

The expansion of rugby league is somewhat of a divisive topic, with most people agreeing it is a good idea – in principle. However, most of those same people do not want this expansion at the cost of their small piece of the sport. That’s understandable, but it does not mean it is excusable. The National Rugby League (NRL) is perhaps the most inward-looking and parochial global sport there is, and I say that as a lifelong fan of the code. Things have changed, however, and it is the pace of that change as well as the reason for it that is key to whether it will ultimately be successful and achieve its goal.

So, what is the goal, and does that of the governing bodies’ fit in with the fans’ hopes for their beloved sport? The aim of any governing body is to maximize revenue. They may be reticent to admit that and choose to couch it in terms that refer to bringing the sport to more people, “moving out of the heartlands” etc., etc., but that is what their ultimate aim is. The fact that usually, those two ideas go hand in hand helps, of course. Supporters also want their team to be successful, and they want the league they play in to be competitive. Widening it out a little, as a supporter, it is fantastic to see different parts of your country, even the world, following your team or nation. So, once again, in principle, those two ideas do not seem diametrically opposed. So, why is it still divisive?

Antipodean Reticence

Looking at the two main powers in the rugby league, it is fascinating to see how different they tackle the issue. The NRL is the most successful league in the sport, with a recent television deal bringing in $1.7 billion into the sport in Australia. Couple that with the fact that the clubs now enjoy $12 million per year, one of which includes the Sydney Roosters, who come October 6th, the eyes of the world will be on the ANZ Stadium to see if they can justify their position as the comfortable favourites to win back-to-back grand finals.

Yes, they have done something right, and the phrase “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” appears to be the overriding philosophy. But there are tentative steps to expand it into other parts of the country, though there is little said about expanding further afield. You can understand clubs being reticent about having their piece of the financial pie eaten into by new franchises, and any additional needs to be supported and competitive, but there is another clichéd phrase that applies: Standing still is akin to going backward.

Europe, Then the World

From Warrington to New York, the appeal of RL has spread. | Photo by King of Hearts / CC BY 3.0

On the other side of the world, the English tend to approach the matter in a different way entirely. For decades, attempts to establish clubs outside the M62 corridor persisted, with little or no success. The London Broncos were the only one that survived any length of time, but that owed more to generous financial backing, as opposed to a sudden love of the game in the capital. Things have changed, though.

London now has two teams. Even further, last year, a team from Perpignan won the Challenge Cup while Red Star Belgrade entered the competition this year. Then, after months of delays/discussions/rumours, the anticipated entry of a New York team into the league looks like it is a step closer. Overall, expansion in the Northern Hemisphere seems to be gathering pace. And while there are more failures than success stories, the philosophy seems to be that is the intended direction. There are reservations, though.

First of all, does New York deserve a side in the league? There will be fans and owners of established lower league clubs who will be rightly frustrated at the Big Apple being parachuted into the RFL. Also, how many fans are they likely to bring on a week-by-week basis? For the smaller clubs, the revenue the travelling fans bring in is crucial.

The two approaches may approach the issue from completely different angles, but you have to believe that the good of the game is at the heart of both philosophies. It will be fascinating to look back in years to come to see which approach proves most successful. Like with all sports, there are bound to be winners and losers along the way, but we can only hope there are more of the former.