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Saturday, April 1, 2023

The NRL’s Past Should Be An Important Part Of Its Future

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This is a tale of two games, two stadiums and two clubs. It’s also a tale of audience segmentation, product marketing and bespoke branding. One of those sentences is a little bit more rugby league than the other.

This weekend was, for one rugby league tragic at least, a look at the National Rugby League (NRL) through the rear view mirror and through the looking glass at what the future of the league might well be. First up, it’s influenced by the Rugby League Digest’s mammoth podcast series on the Super League
War, which soundtracked the myriad trains, buses, Ubers and long walks that carried your humble NRL Outsider from home to North Sydney Oval to Bankwest Stadium and home again across a solid Sunday’s footy.

The podcast is a timely reminder of where the game was 25 years ago when it went from being, for want of a better phrase, small time to big time. I wasn’t in Australia at that time, but I can vouch for the same situation in the UK in 1996: Odsal Stadium, a regular haunt of mine in the early days of full-time professionalism, was home to the Super League champions and yet had three sides of open terracing, no women’s toilets and men’s toilets that were one wall behind a slightly longer wall. Attendances matched the facilities.

Sunday footy at North Sydney Oval

It was interesting, then, to visit North Sydney Oval for the Sunday afternoon game between the North Sydney Bears and Newtown Jets. Both foundation clubs, steeped in rugby league, in one of the most historic and picturesque suburban grounds you’ll find. Both defestrated from first grade, the Jets in the 1980s and the Bears in the 1990s. 

And yet on Sunday, 4,000 people showed up to watch an enthralling 20-all draw. So many people showed up that the Bears, somewhat surprised, ended up with a queue down the street and ran out of beer on the hill. Gary Larson was manning the BBQ and Greg Florimo wandered about like he owned the place, which, in fairness, he pretty much does. There were prams, Mums, Dads and kids, face-painters and craft beer.

It was an artisan product, a bespoke experience. This was a vinyl record of a footy match. There were, for what I think is a first in the thousands of sporting events that I have attended in my life, more retro jerseys than new jerseys. For North Sydney Bears, in the affluent Lower North Shore, and Newtown Jets, based in the heart of the Inner West, this is the future. It looks great. 

It stands as part of a trend that is already well advanced in European soccer. From Dulwich Hamlet and Clapton in London to FC United and West Didsbury and Chorlton in Manchester to Rayo Vallecano in Madrid, FC St Pauli in Hamburg, Tennis Borussia Berlin, Amsterdamsche FC and I could go on. Either priced out or put off by the big leagues, there is a market for fans who want to enjoy sport as it once was, and aren’t for a second bothered, essentially, about how good the teams on the park are.

Sunday evening in Parradise

Compare and contrast with the Parramatta Eels v St George Dragons game at Bankwest Stadium. It’s been said a million times before, but it bears repeating: this is as good a rugby league arena as there is. The pre-match ‘experience’ goes on for about 20 minutes. It’s all singing, all dancing, NRL meets NFL style entertainment. It’s almost designed for someone who knows nothing about rugby league, but would like to. 

Which is ideal: the crowd at Parramatta was diverse, young and of a wide socio-economic base. Much like, well, Parramatta. The City of Parramatta has added over 100,000 residents since 2000, and most of them from non-white, non-Australian backgrounds. This is the Eels’ audience, or at least, it should be. 

Where this ramble is going is that it might behove the NRL to think of their product—that is to say, rugby league, and not the NRL—and who they market it to. 

They can build a televisual product on the field, and have being doing that well. They can build an in-person product too, in venues like Bankwest and the new Sydney Football Stadium, and hopefully in the proposed stadium in Liverpool that could do for South Western Sydney (an area of demographic shift similar to Western Sydney) what Bankwest has done for Parramatta.

Vinyl record rugby league

They can also build an in-person, bespoke experience product centred around the NSW Cup, with teams like Newtown and North Sydney offering footy as it once was, with craft beer and street food, at grounds in the gentrifying areas. Literally nobody cares that the players aren’t first graders, and in fact, would probably would struggle to name more than a handful of those on show yesterday. I’m a stone cold football tragic, and I would go blank pretty quickly. 

Norths v Newtown is an example of where the NRL could go, but it isn’t the only one. 9,000 people showed out at Leichhardt Oval for Wests Tigers v North Queensland Cowboys on Sunday afternoon, and it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine that a team called Balmain Tigers in the NSW Cup wouldn’t be able to get a third of that to show up every two weeks. 

Belmore Sports Ground currently sits dormant most weekends while Canterbury Bulldogs’ NSW Cup team either play as curtain raisers at Stadium Australia to nobody or at Aubrey Keech Reserve, which is (and I haven’t been, but have Google Earthed) a field. I refuse to believe that an economically viable amount of people would not show up to watch the Dogs at Belmore given that they’re running a reserve grade team anyway and losing money on it.

Hey, why not take the other teams that currently play to zero people—Blacktown Workers Sea Eagles, 40km from the sea, St George Illawarra reserves—and move them to places where there is clearly unmet demand for rugby league from the literally tens of thousands of people who have left gentrified areas of Sydney in the last five years. The Central Coast Sea Eagles might sound a lot better. Illawarra Steelers would sound superb and probably pay for itself in retro jerseys alone. 

At the risk of going full Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come. There is unmet demand there, crying out to be sold authentic, analog rugby league. And there’s probably more value in adding 12,000 fans, spread across 4 suburban grounds, than turning Souths’ 25,000 in a 90,000 seater stadium into 37,000. 

Keep Bankwest, of course, and make that your main product. In fact, do more of it. Get the Roosters and the Rabbitohs into the new football stadium at Moore Park. But don’t neglect the heritage product that you already have: build it, and they will come.

The NRL Outsider will drop every week from now until at least the end of the Rugby League World Cup in August. To read it every week, subscribe for free above by clicking in the top right-hand corner of your screen. You can also follow my work on Twitter, at @MikeMeehallWood.

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