If a team from England is brave enough to relocate to Canada, what will it take for a Sydney club to secure their future by moving to Brisbane or Perth?

As debate about expansion of the NRL intensified last week, the Rugby Football League revealed they were considering "an application to relocate Hemel Stags" - a London-based League One club - to Ottawa "and another new application to launch a club in New York".

Such a move would be comparable to the Newtown Jets or North Sydney Bears relocating to New Zealand.  

With Toronto Wolfpack in the third season of their quest for Super League promotion, the RFL could soon have three North American teams if New York are admitted and Wolfpack founder Eric Perez gains approval for the Stags to become Canada's second professional club.

"Both applications are judged to have the potential to help deliver the RFL's strategic vision," the RFL announced in a statement after a board meeting decided to invite the bids to meet with existing clubs.

The NRL is currently formulating its strategic vision for the next generation and the ARLC has given chief executive Todd Greenberg until the end of the year to decide what the Telstra Premiership should look like in the future.

In an extensive interview with Nine's 100% Footy, Greenberg put the expansion issue firmly on the agenda but raised more questions than he could provide answers as the NRL prepares for the most detailed analysis of the game's future footprint ever undertaken.

It appears certain there will be significant changes and the game will expand into new territory for the first time in 25 years after the current broadcast deal expires in 2022 but before that occurs the NRL must resolve the following key issues:

  • How many teams can be sustained;
  • What are the best locations for the NRL to have teams, and;
  • Which clubs will survive if the competition remains at 16 teams.

A second Brisbane team is understood to be the preferred option for broadcasters, while last year's NRL.com player poll found Perth was the favoured location among players for the next club, with 27 per cent of the 117 polled across all 16 clubs voting for the WA capital.

However, there are concerns about the depth of playing talent if the NRL was to expand the competition to 18 teams and much of the debate so far has focused on the relocation of Sydney clubs.

Former ARL CEO John Quayle told NRL.com last year that the game had been encouraging Sydney clubs to consider relocating to Melbourne as the next step in expansion after the introduction of the Auckland Warriors, North Queensland Cowboys, South Queensland Crushers and Western Reds in 1995.

However, no club had been prepared to make the move and the Super League war put an end to the discussions as the ARL and News Corp needed teams for their rival competitions.

Super League model

The initial Super League concept involved the 20 clubs in the 1995 premiership becoming shareholders in 12 privately-owned teams, with four to be based in Sydney, two in Queensland and one each in Newcastle, Canberra, Auckland, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide.

The four Sydney teams were:

  • Sydney West - Canterbury, Parramatta, Penrith and Wests;
  • Sydney North - Manly and North Sydney;
  • Sydney South - St George and Cronulla, and;
  • Sydney East – Balmain, South Sydney and Sydney Roosters

After the Super League war, a Selection Criteria was introduced to reduce the number of teams in the newly formed NRL from 22 to 14 by 2000 – a compromise between the 12 team competition that News Corp wanted and the 16 favoured by the ARL .

The Broncos, Knights and Warriors were guaranteed places in the 14-team competition provided they met a Qualifying Criteria.

Clubs who merged were also guaranteed a spot but it was specified that there should be no less than six Sydney teams – a move that discouraged three-way mergers such as Cronulla joining with St George and Illawarra.

Admission criteria

All clubs had to meet a Basic Criteria based on playing facilities, administration, solvency and development.

To determine which teams survived, clubs were ranked for the 1995, 1996, 1998 and 1999 seasons on:

  • Home crowds (1. Broncos, 2. Knights, 3. Eels);
  • Away crowds (1. Broncos, 2. Eels. 3. Roosters);
  • Competition points (1. Storm, 2. Broncos, 3. Bulldogs);
  • Gate receipts (1. Broncos, 2. Storm, 3. Knights);
  • Profitability (1. Bulldogs, 2. Panthers, 3. Sharks), and;
  • Sponsorship (1. Knights, 2. Broncos, 3. Cowboys).

Clubs were also required to have a minimum revenue of $8 million per season, including gate receipts of $1.25m and net sponsorship of $2.5m.

While the three Sydney clubs who had aligned with Super League – Canterbury, Penrith and Cronulla – were considered the most profitable, every non-Sydney club produced larger gate receipts than their Sydney rivals.

The final rankings were:

1 Brisbane, 2 Newcastle, 3 Melbourne, 4 Canterbury, 5 Cronulla, 6 Sydney Roosters, 7 Parramatta, 8 North Queensland, 9 Warriors, 10 Canberra, 11 Manly, 12 Penrith, 13 Balmain, 14 North Sydney 15 Western Suburbs, 16 South Sydney.

St George Illawarra were not included as they had merged at the end of the 1998 season – meaning Norths, Wests and Souths were excluded from the 2000 premiership.

Mergers and financial incentives

With the NRL offering $8 million to encourage mergers, Balmain and Wests also formed a joint venture, as did Manly and Norths (Northern Eagles), while the Rabbitohs took legal action which led to them being restored to the competition in 2002.

However, the outcome of an appeal against Souths' win in court gives the NRL the right to exclude clubs in the future and the game may need to go through a similar process if it is decided to keep the number of teams at 16 but revamp the competition from 2023.

A determining factor could be whether the existing clubs are prepared to split the $208 million they receive in funding from the NRL between 18 teams – a reduction from $13 million each to $11.5 million each.

While there is resistance in Perth and Brisbane to a relocated team and Sydney clubs are reluctant to move, AFL figures indicate it may be more viable than starting a new team as a Tasmanian consortium was recently advised they would require an initial commitment of $40 million to be considered for entry in 2026.

The other issue is playing talent for 18 teams and one way to gain an indication of the depth available is to look at the players who were not named among their club's top 17 for last weekend's matches.

Possible team: Corey Allan (Rabbitohs); Bevan French (Eels), Gerard Beale (Warriors), Zac Lomax (Dragons), George Jennings (Eels); Josh Reynolds (Tigers), Jake Clifford (Cowboys); Tim Grant (Panthers), Reece Robson (Dragons), Leilani Latu (Titans), Rhyse Martin (Bulldogs), Scott Sorensen (Sharks), Nat Butcher (Roosters). Kyle Flanagan (Sharks), Jamie Buhrer (Knights), Lloyd Perrett (Sea Eagles), Chris McQueen (Tigers).

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.