Wednesday, February 18, 2015

NRL must spread All Stars magic

Following the All Stars match last weekend, the NRL announced it would be moving the fixture back to Brisbane for its sixth appearance on the Rugby League calendar. Whilst the All Stars has been a resounding success since its inception in 2010, the NRL has missed a tremendous opportunity to take both the concept, and Rugby League to other parts of the country. 

Inaugural try-scorer Wendall Sailor starts the All Stars magic
The NRL All stars original idea was conceived by Preston Campbell, an Indigenous Rugby League player who at the time was playing for the Gold Coast Titans. Campbell’s idea for the game came after representing the indigenous side that played a lead-up game to the 2008 Rugby League World Cup against a New Zealand Maori team. His sentiments about the amount of indigenous players in the sport and the opportunity such a match would provide for them to represent their indigenous culture, led to then Titans CEO Michael Searle bringing the concept to life in partnership with the NRL

The first three years were played on the Gold Coast at the Titans home ground in Robina, in the fourth year it was played at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane. Becoming an annual event with a week-long build up, the players hours of community work, mix with the public during open training sessions and importantly, participate in specific events with Indigenous students from around Australia who earned their trip through positive contributions at school. 

These off-field activities in the lead up to the game have proved to be far more important than any of the normal indicators the NRL would use to judge the success of a game like crowd figures and financial gain. The sunshine state and in particular south-east Queensland has proven to be the quintessential location for the week with the nearby theme parks and idyllic beaches. 

However, with the game about to enter its sixth edition in 2016, the NRL has failed to take a chance  on spreading its gospel to new parts of Australia. Parts of the country that are new ground for professional Rugby League, are also areas where the indigenous community would rally behind the concept. Perth, Adelaide and Darwin would provide the perfect place to continue the All Stars event. All are capital cities in states with large indigenous populations, are new markets the NRL will be looking to expand to, and would still able to maintain the community events and focus on fun being located on the Australian coastline. 

Shifting the All Stars game as opposed to a representative fixture like State of Origin or a Kangaroos match is much easier given that it is essentially an exhibition match. While the popularity of State of Origin would sell out any ground around the country, the All Stars game is represented by each and every NRL club, and the indigenous players from the competition. The opportunity the week would provide to support the growth of Rugby League in these markets would be priceless given the media attention it would attract. 

With expansion touted as on the plans when the new broadcast deal is done in 2017, the next two years would be a wise time to test the water in proposed areas. The NRL knows it has to grow the sport and its own domestic competition, and has appointed former South Sydney CEO and current news story, Shane Richardson as its Head of Strategy to formulate its expansion plans. Richardson has been a big supporter of international Rugby League, expansion and any event based on growing the game. At South Sydney he took games to Perth, was the architect of the expanded World Club Challenge, and was eager to take on the Chief Executive role of the International Rugby League. Hopefully with him at the helm of strategy, the game can be shifted to new locations in years to come. 

The NRL stated that Brisbane was secured as the location for the 2016 All Stars game 'in partnership Tourism and Events Queesnland’. Whether this deal is the end of a multi-year partnership of a former agreement with the state government or a new one year deal remains to be seen, but with falling crowds on the Gold Coast over the last few years with disgruntled Rugby League supporters, surely the time is right for the event to be taken elsewhere. Even Townsville and Cairns shape as  healthier options than keeping the game on the Gold Coast. Imagine the experience that could be delivered if the game was one day played in Alice Springs. Think outside the box, give the fans something new to experience, the players somewhere to different to play, and the country a taste of the greatest game of all.