Membership Storm hits big milestone
It was one of the darkest days in Australian sports history that not only devastated Melbourne Storm fans but crushed all rugby league supporters.
The salary cap scandal of 2010 nearly threatened the existence of the young club that had formed into an NRL powerhouse as the Storm were stripped of their 2007 and 2009 premierships.
While many brandished them as cheats, their loyal supporter base stuck by their side and celebrated a milestone 20,000-strong membership last week.
"It (the club) has been through some tough times but it’s also been through some really good times. To me, that’s an example of how we have the best members in the country," Storm chief executive officer Dave Donaghy said.
"It’s a fantastic milestone to achieve. I am genuine when I say we have the best members in the competition.
"They stuck by us through some really tough times and hopefully they’re enjoying the good times that exist at the moment."
Established in 1998, the Storm grew to now boast the fourth-highest number in the NRL behind iconic and historic clubs the Brisbane Broncos, South Sydney Rabbitohs and Parramatta Eels. What makes it even more remarkable is they achieved the feat while lying in the Aussie Rules-obsessed state.
"I liked coach Craig Bellamy's comments this week: ‘AFL is a religion and we’re just a church up the road.’ It’s a great comment and fantastic line," Donaghy said. "He’s right. We’re in the middle of AFL heartland but pleasingly we’ve been able to carve out a real market for ourselves."
And it promises to be just the beginning of something bigger with Melbourne to take centre stage for some of the game’s biggest showpieces.
"We’ve seen great growth in the past few years and there’s some real opportunity coming up off the back of the Rugby League World Cup at the end of this year and State of Origin next year as well as any other potential future major events [in Melbourne]," Donaghy said.
The Storm has spread their name right across the country this year with matches played in Perth, Adelaide, Hobart, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne as well as playing in New Zealand.
"This year, we flew to every state in Australia – except for Northern Territory and that’s a territory. It has demonstrated the strength of the Storm across the country as a really popular club. No doubt, people outside of Melbourne have also really jumped on board."
When Donaghy was named as Storm CEO in June 2015, the 34-year-old had big ambitions to continue the club’s on-field success and increase its membership. He credited the people within the organisation in achieving those goals.
"We have some great staff in our organization within the front office," Donaghy said. "They do a fantastic job with engaging with our members – I have no doubt that’s made a real contribution to our growth in the membership base as has the performance of the team.
"Ultimately, our footy club is built on the people that are in there. They’re really high-quality, highly-capable people that enjoy what they do and deliver a good product on and off the field."
Donaghy is determined for the club to continue to drive that engagement in driving more fans to the growing game of rugby league in Melbourne.
"Our big focus is on membership and building crowds," Donaghy said. "Our average crowd this year is (over) 19,000 which is top two or three in the league.
"It’s going to be a focus for us the next few years and driving the utilisation of the stadium to entrench a strong purple following at every game.
"The moment you enter the stadium you instantly connect with the club. We make that a real focus for us. We want people to know they’re in our house and they’re more than welcome.
"We’ve had a great response on that from our members. They feel that and get a sense of ownership and contribution into the club but also into the entertainment that we offer is quite unique particularly in Melbourne."
With club icon Cooper Cronk departing at season’s end, Melbourne fans also expect to send off legends Cameron Smith and Billy Slater in the coming years. However – behind inspirational leader Jesse Bromwich – the promising youngsters and future superstars such as Cameron Munster, Brodie Croft, Ryley Jacks, Suliasi Vunivalu, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Josh Addo-Carr, Young Tonumaipea, Dale Finucane and Felise Kaufusi in the Storm system ensure a bright horizon.
"We’ve spent a considerable amount of time with the knowledge at some point there is going to be a transition of troops on-field," Donaghy said.
"We’ve got some emotional times with the farewelling at some point of different players as they come to the end of their careers and Cooper is the first this year.
"On one hand, it’s going to be a real emotional time, particularly this year with Cooper but at the same time when one door shuts, another opens and there’ll be someone that’ll take that No.7 role next year and I’ve got no doubt he'll plug into a mature system and do well."
Just as the league-leading Storm have set the NRL benchmark on the field in recent years, time will soon show they’re creating a storm off of it, too.