Lockyer: 17-team comp solves expansion debate
IT'S time for rugby league's bosses to make some definitive decisions on expansion and the code's national footprint for the NRL's next broadcasting deal.
For too long, the game has tap-danced around the expansion debate, spruiking the merits of growth and giving false hope to prospective NRL teams without formulating a specific, iron-clad vision for Australia's premier rugby-league competition.
During the week, it was revealed the ARL Commission had resumed discussions around perpetual licences for the existing 16 NRL teams.
But there would be a caveat to the current clubs receiving lifetime guarantees - if they can't remain viable using their own funds, there will be no NRL bailout.
Under a perpetual licensing agreement, the NRL would have beefed-up powers to transfer the licence of a bankrupt Sydney club to an area such as Brisbane or Perth.
Later this year, NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg will deliver a formal report on expansion with his recommendations to the ARL Commission.
The ARL Commission's preference is to relocate clubs rather than expand the competition, but I believe a compromise must be reached to better balance the welfare of Sydney clubs with an urgent need to grow the game.
The NRL should make moves to expand to a 17-team competition. In 2023, when the next broadcasting deal is in place, the NRL must grant a new licence to either Brisbane or Perth.
The critical south-east Queensland market is now robust enough to accommodate a second Brisbane team to co-exist with the Broncos.
I would equally have no issue if Perth was chosen by the NRL ahead of a second Brisbane team as the 17th side.
It should ultimately come down to which organisation presents the best business model, but the one certainty is that the NRL needs one more team sooner rather than later.
As far as adding two teams, I don't believe the NRL is fiscally capable of that just yet.
An 18-team competition would require an additional $26 million annually in $13m grants to two new teams. Then there's the pressure of finding an extra 60 first-grade players within Australia's relatively tiny population base compared to other sports-mad nations such as United States or United Kingdom.
But adding just one team can work. It would both satisfy the desperate need to reward Queensland fans for their support of the game, while preserving the identity of Sydney clubs.
In theory, relocation seems the safest option because it mitigates the NRL from the pain of killing off one, or more, Sydney-based teams.
But the problem is the reality of the application.
How could the NRL realistically pick up a proud Sydney entity like Cronulla, or Souths, or Wests Tigers, or the Dragons, and simply parachute them into Brisbane or Perth?
Like many people in our code, I love the history of our game and it's important we protect that at all costs.
The Sharks' heartland is in the Sutherland Shire, just as Redfern is the spiritual home of the Rabbitohs.
The NRL needs no reminder of the pain and heartache of killing off South Sydney, which led to the costly legal stoush which resulted in the Rabbitohs reinstatement to the game in 2002.
So the precedent has been set.
As a proud Queenslander myself, I simply cannot see many fans getting behind the Brisbane Sharks.
The danger is the NRL would not only lose an entire supporter base in the Sutherland Shire, but they risk alienating millions of Brisbane fans who want a shiny new brand, not a re-badged team that built its bedrock in Sydney.
Having a 17-team league may not give the NRL an extra game to sell to broadcasters, but consider the other benefits.
A second Brisbane team will cultivate millions of dollars via corporate and fan support. In the process, the NRL could possibly emphatically crush its chief threat, the AFL.
A weekly bye in the draw would also provide a welcome rest for NRL players at a time when concern over their workload has never been greater.
The growth of our game should not hinge on waiting for a struggling Sydney club to fall over. With the right strategic moves, made quickly and decisively, the NRL can safeguard its history and take the game to another level.