Comments Smith made to Sydney Morning Herald rugby league writer Brad Walter this week indicate the NRL has little intent to expand beyond its current 16 clubs any time soon.
“I think our clubs are stronger, there is no question about that, and there have been some interventions over the last couple of years to make them even stronger but until you have got 16 sustainable, profitable clubs that are able to re-invest back into their clubs it seems inconceivable that you would add a club and just add to the burden,” Smith told Walter. “I think there has been a lot of progress been made there but you have got to get that base strong before you can contemplate adding any more NRL teams.”
What Smith fails to address is that there are clearly too many teams in the crowded Sydney market, which is partly why some are not financially stable. What happens if those financial issues are not fixed for another decade? Does the game continue to hold itself back just so a couple of clubs in Sydney, that wouldn’t be missed, can get themselves up-to-speed.
The reality is that the game has been ready to expand to Perth, to Brisbane for a second time, to New Zealand again and other locations for years already. It has been the over-saturation in Sydney that is holding things up. If the NRL ever embarked on an A-League-style scrap everything and start again model – there would be an obvious move to introduce more teams around Australasia and to have less in the crowded Sydney market. Throwing the table scraps (a NSW Cup team) at some new places will have next to no impact. Just like taking Sydney home games to Cairns or Perth is little more than a money-making exercise for the Sydney clubs and the NRL paying lip service to the rest of the country.
This is a time for true leadership – for someone to take a hard stance and do what needs to be done for the long-term good of the game. Is the game poorer for not having the North Sydney Bears or Western Suburbs Magpies playing at the moment? Aside from some old fans of those two teams, the sport isn’t missing them one bit. Just like they wouldn’t miss the Cronulla Sharks, Wests Tigers or Parramatta Eels a decade from now. But fast-forward 10 years and let’s try and predict if the game would be missing an established franchise in Perth, in Wellington and another one in Brisbane. The answer is a resounding yes. Reason being is that in 10 years from now (or two television deals away) the NRL could have found itself with a strong presence in a different television market. It could have found itself measuring up favourably to the AFL and other rival sports in Brisbane and New Zealand. Heck, 10 years from now the AFL might have more teams in Brisbane than rugby league does. They could have a franchise in New Zealand, eating ever-so-slightly into rugby league’s territory.
Smith was quick to roll over and take the big television cheque from Channel 9 but it was without any real thought to the future that he accepted that deal. We all wait anxiously to see how well the completed television deal from 2018 (once pay tv and digital rights are finalised) stacks up this time around but cast your mind forward to a couple of television deals from now and it makes for nervous times for rugby league fans.