What the NRL should be obsessing over in their quest to conquer the Sports Universe
1. Win the Mums over
Mothers are not impressed. Rugby League is a dangerous game and their children aren’t going to be playing it. Not if they have anything to do with it. Others believe that mothers are wrapping their kids in cotton wool and kids everywhere need to take a teaspoon of cement and harden up.
I think there is some merit in both arguments. Regardless of your stance on the matter, rugby league is a gladiatorial sport and the game needs to be made as safe as possible by the NRL without compromising the spectacle. Unless the NRL has access to cloning technology eventually the assembly line of players will end.
The NRL has made a good start on this front with the ban of the shoulder charge. Many thought (myself included) this would ruin the game. It hasn’t. The NRL has also sought to stamp out the chicken wing tackle, the cannonball tackle and the crusher tackle (we didn’t even know what these were ten years ago) and the campaign against the spear tackle is years old now (it is absolutely amazing that this was part of the game at any stage). The NRL has also foreshadowed a strengthening of the current concussion policy.
The NRL needs to keep up the good work. From the rapid uptake of the shoulder charge ban by the RLIF and the RFL it is pretty clear that the sport is taking its lead from Australia. Any adjustment the NRL makes will hopefully be picked up by the rest of the world. Ironically the intrepid folk in Middle Earth (NZ) thought of this one. The NZRL had a ban in place for the shoulder charge well before the NRL. The NRL needs to make the game even safer for mothers (and some fathers for that matter) or they simply will not let their kids play.
There is also the issue of litigation. I’ve no doubt that the NRL is casting an eye across the Pacific Ocean to see how things are turning out for the NFL. Maybe the NRL should be proactive in this regard as well.
Participation numbers for children are a critical aspect to winning the war against the other three football codes (the Australian Bureau of Statistics found in the latest survey on junior participation rates that Rugby League is third amongst the football codes nationally) and there is no doubt that the battle to win Mums over is a key part to winning this war.
2. Look after the battlers and the latte drinkers
Rugby League is firmly grounded in the working class. I wasn’t around when the game was first played but the history books reliably inform me that the game flourished as a result of the support given by the working class and today is no different. The epicentre for Rugby League isn’t Bulimba, Woollhara or Herne Bay but rather Logan, Penrith and Otahuhu (although those from Bondi may disagree at the moment even though they would struggle to find any news about their Roosters in the Australian Financial Review). This isn’t a new concept by far but the NRL Commission would do well to consolidate support amongst the heartland. The market for the sporting dollar is extremely competitive and the average punter has little enough to spend on sport after rates and electricity bills have come in.
Probably the most important thing the NRL needs to do is address ticket prices. The football has to be more affordable for everyone but especially the core supporters. Making a range of affordable game day and season ticket prices should be a priority for every club but it should be a strategy driven by the NRL. The NRL has increased the focus on memberships in the last two years. They seem to be doing a good job on this front, however, there is much ground to make up on Aussie Rules. They should do something about jersey prices and greater access to live free to air coverage while they are at it.
Conversely, it is fair to say that the middle and upper classes are enamoured with the game played in heaven. State of Origin seems to be a game that crosses over (for all residents of Queensland and NSW), however, the hold that rugby has on the middle and upper classes cannot be understated. From first XV GPS rugby right through to the Wallabies it is a game largely watched by this demographic (Kiwis and South Africans are a notable exception to this rule of course). The NRL needs to figure out some pretty handy strategies to make the game appealing to this important demographic while at the same time ensuring core support isn’t eroded. They could start by incentivising rugby league in private schools. Apart from some notable exceptions (Patrician Brothers, St Gregory’s and others) there is more rugby union played in private schools than rugby league, or at least it seems that way. Sponsoring tournaments and chipping away at the stronghold of private school rugby should be high on the priority list for the NRL Commission.
3. Take some ground off Aussie Rules
The NRL has for some time looked longingly at the Aussie Rules playing states and the Adelaide Rams and Western Reds were examples of previously failed attempts to gain a permanent foothold in those states. The Melbourne Storm is a wonderful ambassador for the game (apart from the salary cap fiasco) and domestic competitions do exist in most of the other states, however, Aussie Rules is king. Just try and find some rugby league news in the Age or on the nightly news broadcasts in Melbourne. Playing the occasional game in Perth and Adelaide is a start but the NRL needs to do much more especially at grass roots level.
I don’t think it takes too long to work out that the game is still too Sydney-centric. There are just too many clubs in Sydney. The NRL tried to change this once before at the end of the Superleague war with amalgamations but that period of time also eroded core support for the game. The continued existence of nine teams in Sydney is unsustainable if the NRL wants to become a truly Australia wide competition and rugby league a truly Australia wide sport. The NRL Commission seems to be taking expansion seriously and taking a more cautious approach than previous administrations which expanded way too rapidly for the Australian market (and without too much recognition of where the game is actually played). Relocation of some of the Sydney clubs (especially clubs which are regionally co-located with other NRL clubs) seems to be the only answer. Forcing clubs to relocate doesn’t seem to be the best method but maybe it is the only way. The AFL’s strategy of incentivising relocation seems to be a viable alternative but it remains to be seen whether it could ever be successful for Rugby League.
Involvement within the second tier competition by potential expansion teams should be a pre-requisite and I note that Central Queensland, Central Coast, Ipswich and PNG will all now be involved in the restructured second tier competition. Involvement in the Toyota or Holden Cup (or whatever they will be calling it this year) should be a pre-requisite as well.
4. The Universe consists of an area larger than Australia
Probably the most neglected issue for the NRL (and the recent loss of Sam Burgess to Rugby Union only strengthens this point) is the international game. Getting the NRL to focus on an area larger than Australia is imperative. The World Cup almost disappeared completely. The international game was a debacle. If it wasn’t for a few well-placed quotes from Wayne Bennett I think it would have disappeared forever. It has long been an oddity that the strength of each football code domestically is inversely proportional to the strength of its international game (the rankings for the international game from first to last would be Soccer, Rugby Union, Rugby League and Aussie Rules with the domestic rankings being Aussie Rules, Rugby League, Rugby Union with a rapidly improving Soccer bringing up the rear). In the 1980s and 1990s Australia dominated Rugby League into international oblivion. There were a couple of close series but neither Great Britain or New Zealand could quite get across the line and France disappeared almost completely (Australia have only played France twice in Australia since 1981 and France hasn’t beaten Australia since 1978). Then the 2005 Tri Nations happened and international competition became relevant again. Repeat tournament victories in 2008 and then 2010 by New Zealand further cemented competition into the top echelon of the international game, however, Australia is still a fair way ahead of the competition. The international game is fairly formative in the rest of the world.
The NRL should ignore the international game at its own peril. A workable international programme is needed now and the strategy should be twofold.
Firstly, State of Origin is both the saviour and the destroyer of the game. Queensland and NSW in their never ending struggle to best the other is cannibalising the international game. The pinnacle of the game should not be a state vs state game. It is by far and away the most lucrative game for players. The NRL needs to protect the international game by excluding players who qualify by birth for another country (yes I’m looking at you James Tamou and I haven’t forgotten about you either Tonie Carroll and Brad Thorn) or they need to throw open the gates and let Origin players play for other countries (as recently hinted at by Russell Crowe). You just have to look at the Junior Emerging Origin squad to get the point.
The second part of the strategy really must be a heavy increase in international competition to incentivise players choosing their place of birth over their place of residence. This seems to be starting to happen in the Northern hemisphere but is very limited in the Southern hemisphere. The NRL should be incentivising players from these countries to play for them full time not just at World Cup time. The Pacific Cup should be aligned with State of Origin and NZ should play Great Britain mid-season at the same time. The Pacific Cup could be run as two seeded pools from Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, PNG, Cook Islands and South Africa playing round robin with promotion/relegation depending on results each year. The winner of the top pool would get an invitation to the Four Nations each time it is played in the Southern Hemisphere.
To do this the NRL would need to overhaul the representative calendar and make players available for representative breaks. If the English Premier League can stop its 38 week season for numerous international breaks then the NRL should be able to do it for at least three weekends a year. Coordinating with Superleague to organise this should be the most important thing the NRL does. A stand-alone representative weekend three weekends a year would be a good start.
The work that individuals like Brad Fittler and Andrew Johns have been doing in Fiji should be better supported and expanded and an invitation to the Auckland nines for all the Pacific nations would be another initiative worth considering.
5. What is the modern equivalent of the footy card?
This generation is different from the previous generations. Presented with an endless array of entertainment options (online or otherwise) the world is a smaller and more accessible place. In the 1980s a child could only follow the English Premier League or the NFL occasionally on television when a local station picked up a game or two but predominantly news could only be received by paper. These days kids can just as easily be fans of Manchester United as they can be of St George Illawarra. Winning the hearts and minds of the next generation should be high on the list of priorities for the NRL. The NRL needs to have better online engagement with children and they absolutely have to find the modern equivalent to the footy card. They also need to foster a simple, safer version of the game like Auskick and it should be pedalled basically cost free to every school in Australia, if possible.
6. Cryogenically freeze SBW
It would be an understatement to say that SBW created some buzz around the game last year. From the moment there was a chance he would sign on with the Roosters until the moment Australia shut the Kiwis down in Manchester he dominated headlines and the headlines were nearly all positive (apart from the first game thought bubble fiasco and the Tohu Harris debacle). Football rises and falls on the fortunes of its marquee players. Buzz sells tickets and marquee players like JT, SBW and Ben Barba put bottoms on seats. There are a variety of ways to ensure that marquee players stay in the game and it is important that the NRL explores a range of retention initiatives. When the NRL finishes its review of the salary cap, concessions for marquee players need to be significant. Letting international players into Origin wouldn’t hurt either. Anything to continue to attract the exciting players that promote the sport must be explored.
7. Stamp out the drugs
If you don’t think PEDs are a blight on the game then you’ve probably stopped watching sport. Everybody wants a fair contest. If we didn’t then we would dispense with referees and throw the rule book out the window. PEDs skew the field. They also make us cynical. Whenever someone comes out of nowhere to be a star or returns from injury quicker than expected people get suspicious in the United States. We don’t want that to be the status quo in Australia as well. Now at the moment it seems that PED use (or at least the detection of PED use) hasn’t hit plague proportions yet. Either way the NRL needs to do everything in its power to stamp out PED use in the game. Cooperating with ASADA and strengthening the NRL’s integrity unit is a start, however, they need to continue to fight the good fight. For good measure they need to make sure match fixing is also stamped out.
Scattered thoughts that didn’t make the top 7:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are some of the most passionate fans of Rugby League in the country. The NRL should be fostering growth of the game for Indigenous Australians whether it be sponsoring Indigenous competitions, increasing development initiatives in Indigenous communities or working on pathways towards the elite competitions.
- Ditto PNG (the only country which has Rugby League as its national sport).
- The game must be fostered in the bush as well.
- Consideration of a player loan system (like the English Premier League) or a player trade system (like the NBA/MLB/NFL).
- Consideration for the return of a mid-week competition or a Challenge Cup type competition (share the trophies around).
Question for you
What steps do you think the NRL absolutely has to take?
I found the following was an interesting discussion around a similar topic:
Stay tuned for the next exciting episode on Thursday, 27 February 2014 titled ‘7 sportsmen who could cross over to the other side’.