“Is the NRL really about to die?”
So maybe the crowds are down , and we have a stack of off-field dramas cooking in the media; such as Sonny Bill Williams shooting through and Todd Carney unleashing his fire-hose on someone else along with the on-going trend of Rugby Union and UK Super League tournaments enticing plenty of top tier NRL players away.
So what can we do? Do we need to panic? Do we really need to make changes?
Maybe we could tweak the salary cap and give clubs a shot at keeping big name stars; such as Mark Gasnier, Brett Hodgson or Danny Buderus. But sadly, with the current business state of the clubs – David Gallop knows that changing the financial dynamics of the cap could literally send some clubs over the edge. Desperate to keep players, clubs could stretch themselves too far and collapse.
Some even say this might be a good thing; allowing a natural death of the weaker clubs will reduce teams in Sydney and make a stronger NRL all round. A pretty harsh view, think back to the Super League Wars – regardless of whether you agreed or disagreed with the Super League theory, it wasn’t fun for South Sydney Supporters, or even Crushers, Rams, Reds or Mariners supporters to see their teams wither and die.
What about the bad publicity at the moment, is the SBW saga or Todd Carney fiasco really hurting the NRL?
While doomsayers suggest its a ‘bad look’ in reality, any smart marketer knows that even ‘bad news’ is ‘good news’. Getting front and back page exposure adds to the NRL hitting the forefront of the public minds. Politically correct folks and officials within the NRL would never publicly admit this – but its true, stories and headlines keep the sport in the public eye.
What about on the NRL field? Some say the increase in penalties, players taking dives, video referee performance and attitude shown from some players towards referees are all hurting the NRL badly.
The quality of the game is always an important factor. The NRL has always been a smart innovator and if rules needed changing or cleaning up, they acted. They might need to tweak a few things right now. The video referee is a dead set lottery, no one knows which way he will go these days. Too much is left to ‘personal opinion’ and the likes of the Travis Burns no-try and even the Amos Roberts try both in Round 22 both totally incorrect – need to be stamped out of the game. The style of NRL with the dummy half running at present is a worry, the UK Super League has surpassed the National Rugby League in terms of excitement and and unpredictability – we need to ‘relax’ the A and B marker direct rule – which will stamp out all this safety first, boring one-out running.
An important factor must not be forgotten here, the NRL has done well to outlaw high tackles. While some complain (even TV commentators) that the game has softened up, keeping players heads and necks safe – ensures that juniors and more importantly, the parents of juniors allow their kids to play the game at grass roots level.
Closely tied into this, is the respect factor that players must show towards referees. Ok, so referees do get things wrong and in the case of Justin Hodges giving Tony Archer ‘the bird’ behind his back – this absolutely deserved 2 weeks off the field. You cannot, no matter how bad the decision – let players disrespect the referee. This breaks down the whole fabric of any game or sport and brings anarchy.
Why aren’t we getting bums on seats at NRL grounds? Is this a worry?
Quite simply, the amount of television coverage today spoils NRL Rugby League viewers. With every single game of NRL covered in both Australia and New Zealand, fans are truly spoilt. Two free to air games Friday night, Super Saturday PayTV coverage and more free to air on Sunday – it’s a feast for the family at home, saving money firing up the BBQ and watching the action.
NRL is the ideal TV sport. Unlike AFL where seeing the whole large field is critical to long range kicks, the NRL action fits nicely onto the box and can be followed sometimes much easier than the best seats at the stadiums.
Cutting back on Free to Air TV coverage and introducing Saturday afternoon games could see more families come back to the games. Suburban home grounds are a winner for many reasons; they are close to home for more families, offer lower pricing and an environment that provides a much more exciting atmosphere. Ok, so you might be sitting on a wooden seat, a cold slippery hill and the pies might be colder – but you can feel the vibe, wave your flag next to fellow supporters and not feel like you are the only one sitting in a 100,000 seat stadium.
The NRL also need s to re-approach a national coverage. To get serious and compete, they need to win back Perth and Adelaide. Forget the hurdles to jump, boundaries to cross and financial worries – it is a must. The way to start is by ensuring there is realistic TV coverage for now into these states; at relevant time slots to start winning back old punters. From there, the introduction of local teams will re-unite the comp and gain national exposure which is critical to being a the no.1 national game.
Are the representative games hurting the NRL crowds?
The likes of City vs Country, State of Origin and Kangaroo Test games are proud parts of the Rugby League calendar. However, tossing these games in as mid-week fixtures adds plenty of pressure onto players, coaches, officials and more importantly crowd attendances.
While many are concerned about player injuries during this time as the extra demands are placed on them, few talk about how these games take away from the weekend crowds. A big turn out to a representative game usually means lower attendances for that weekends NRL games, stars unable to backup and fans recovering from the financial costs of showing up to 2 games a week is usually the problem.
Lets push representative games to the weekend, to stop this problem.
How can NRL clubs generate more fans?
While several clubs now try and attract a larger following by taking games to other locations such as New Zealand, Queensland, Gosford or even PNG where NRL is huge – what about taking this to the next national level and trying Perth, Adelaide or more importantly regional areas. While NRL; certainly the ones traveling poorly can only get 7,000 to a local game – taking a game to a regional area should certainly attract a similar if not larger crowd if promoted well.
Should Sydney clubs merge?
This is a tough question. For the long term improvement of the NRL competition; Yes.
It’s such a tough call, because naturally supporters will not want to lose their clubs identity. But short term pain for long term game is whats on offer; if a few Sydney clubs tied the knot – it would not only allow them to become a powerhouse, it would bring back the crowds, bring in the revenue and allow national expansion plans to be finalised. For example; South Sydney and the Sydney Roosters could form an inner-city powerclub. A massive junior base, close proximity and an SFS base – a recipe for big things.
Out west, Parramatta and the Panthers could form a serious Western Sydney megaclub. Their junior pool would be the envy of the state and the support from two neighboring areas could see a giant born able to compete nationally week in, week out. Both clubs have impressive local stadiums that could share the load and sponsors would be keen to get on board to access a wider local market.
The Bulldogs in particular are a club in need of a new home. Rumours abound about their Central Coast investigations, probably a smart move for them at the moment. They have virtually surrendered Belmore Oval; a wreck beyond repair and a virtual write-off due to positioning and safety risks within that area – the Bulldogs cannot continue to play out of Homebush. They need to refind themselves and quickly; they have a good roster rolling up for 2009 – but need a true home where the fans can re-unite and call it their own.
Trimming the Sydney clubs will ultimately allow the expansion that is needed. Queensland are now the true powerhouse of Rugby League; through sheer crowd support and a growing junior base – they are leading the way. NSW need to take a leaf from their book and possibly take a hit to get ahead.
What about nationally; will the NZ Warriors ever work?
A relic of the ARL expansion from years ago; the NZ and formerly Auckland Warriors have remained intact. While they have only enjoyed serious success in 2002 the Warriors have threatened to go so close so many times. Some have said the future of the NZ Warriors is in doubt. And while the NRL has to consider a national Australian competition first and foremost – I think it would be a shame to cut the NZ franchise away.
When the Warriors finally win their maiden premiership (lets hope it doesn’t take as long as Cronulla) they will unlock the most powerful force in Rugby League. The New Zealand public are the sleeping giant of the game. They are a country that lives for Rugby Union at the moment and thats mostly because thats all they have ever known; a successful League team in NZ will introduce more Kiwis to the game and unleash a generation of kids wearing Warriors jerseys not Super 14 jerseys. A premiership brings a chain-reaction of events which brings a whole country of potential with the Warriors.
What about a second tier, relegation style competition for the NRL?
With a competition of 12 teams seeming ideal, the NRL could have each team playing each other twice which is a much more balanced and fairer system. If the NRL was to cut clubs or merge them; they could soften the blow by introducing a ‘second tier’ competition to keep clubs, fans and players happy. Unlike the ‘Reserve Grade’ competition where each team had a feeder group of players take part; a lower Tier competition where the likes of say Newtown, Wellington, Central Coast, Perth Reds or new faces could compete – establish a foot hold and be promoted for winning. The winning club should face the wooden spooners of the NRL for a possible competition swap, creating excitement for even the wooden spooners in a match both teams would be desperate to win.
We hope these ideas have sparked some debate and while its healthy for us all to debate the NRL and it’s potential shortcomings – it’s handy to know that the quality is always being produced. Sonny Bill Williams has captured plenty of headlines for his walkout and rightly should be chased in court for contract monies owed – we suddenly see rookies like Ben Barba and Dane Laurie burst onto the scene with raw flair and determination.
We can’t see the light of our game ever burning out.