Clubs fear NRL can’t afford to expand

By Stuart Honeysett

THE AUSTRALIAN – 14 APRIL 2015

The NRL’s expansion plans beyond 2017 are rapidly fading after club chairmen expressed concern at a recent meeting over whether the game could afford more teams.

The Australian understands the issue was addressed three weeks ago at a meeting that was also attended by NRL chief executive Dave Smith. Smith is keeping an open mind on the issue of expansion but acknowledged the club’s concerns were legitimate.

The NRL is already propping up four clubs who are battling financially.

The league recently appointed former South Sydney chief executive Shane Richardson to a game strategy and development role. He is working on a number of projects including the issue of expansion when the next broadcast rights deal is negotiated.

The current $1 billion contract expires at the end of the 2017 season and the next deal will be more lucrative on the back of its ratings success — the NRL grand final and the first two State of Origin games were the top-three programs of 2014.

It is believed free-to-air broadcaster Channel Nine is keen for a second Brisbane team but the NRL has to weigh up whether any additional revenue can support up to two new franchises or would be better spent strengthening the existing 16 clubs. The NRL has been forced to step in and is playing an ongoing role in helping Newcastle, Gold Coast, Wests Tigers and St George Illawarra pay their bills.

The fact the Titans were the last expansion club to be admitted in 2007 only adds to the concern.

“We need all the current clubs to be sustainable and the only way you’d look at expansion is if you made the pie bigger — not divide the same pie up between more teams,’’ one club boss told The Australian yesterday. “Unless it’s really profitable for the game you wouldn’t do it.’’ There are a number of consortiums lining up to be included in the NRL when it expands again including the West Coast Pirates, Brisbane Bombers, Central Coast Bears, another Brisbane franchise, a central Queensland and Ipswich corridor bid.

The Australian understands the franchises have been told they will have an opportunity to make a sales pitch to the NRL later this year before Richardson finalises his report and presents it to the ARL Commission for consideration. Bombers chairman Craig Davison said he remained confident the NRL would expand for the 2018 season and a second team would be included from Brisbane.

He added he did not believe another team in that market would impact on the already struggling Titans. “My personal belief is that there needs to be a team in Brisbane in 2018 to maximise the value of the next TV rights deal. “How that makes the whole 16, 17, 18 team thing look like, I don’t know, and obviously the investigations the NRL are doing will be told that at some point. I see putting another team in Brisbane strengthening the league market.’’

Pirates chief executive John Sackson, who is also employed by the NRL as a development officer in Western Australia, said he had already been waiting five years for an answer on expansion and it would be a blow if it was put back again. “Nothing will accelerate growth of the game here more so than the presence of having an NRL franchise and everything that goes along with it,’’ Sackson said. “Everything has been put on the backburner here awaiting further direction and we believe we’ll have a better idea come the latter part of this year.

“It would be disappointing if expansion was taken off the table in conjunction with the next TV deal. It would be very disappointing for the fans and the stakeholders of the game in Western Australia but it’s in the hands of the powers that be.’’

Bears CEO Greg Florimo said it was exciting that expansion was back on the agenda and it would be hard to overcome if more teams weren’t added. “If they say ‘no’, while that would be disappointing, that would probably put an end to it for us,’’ Florimo said. “At the moment we’ve got 8000 members and all these things in place ready to go. How do we keep those people hot for another three or four or five years? “It would probably be a matter of starting again and rebirthing the whole thing. “The next deal kicks off in 2018 and if they say no to that and maybe it might be 2024, well gosh, that’s a long way away.’’