Tuesday, April 11, 2017

NRL must make Perth club a reality

With the Western Force set to be sensationally dumped at season’s end from the Southern Hemisphere’s Super Rugby competition, surely the time is now right for the NRL to return to Western Australia and take advantage of the hole the Force’s absence will leave in the Perth sport’s market. 
Established in 2006, the Western Force have been unable to achieve any real success during their 11 seasons in the Super Rugby competition. While they were able to attract reasonable numbers of around 15,000-plus to games against fellow Australian sides in their early years, crowd figures and support has begun to wane. 

On average attendances, their crowds have been respectable until recent times. In 2013, the Force achieved an average crowd of 12,631 and it remained steady at 12,751 in 2014, before beginning to fall. 

This season across their two games so far, they have only achieved a measly average of 7,741. While their decline is a discussion for another article, their tumble out of the Super Rugby competition is the door swinging wide-open for the NRL to re-enter Western Australia. 
The West Coast Pirates logo.

In 2012, the West Coast Pirates established themselves as a genuine franchise prospect seeking to enter the National Rugby League. At the time, the group said they would only need two years to be ready-to-go as a first-grade professional rugby league side and set about strengthening their junior base. 

They currently have an under 18s side playing in the New South Wales Rugby League SG Ball competition, and while they are presently sitting on the bottom of the table and without a win this season, the fact they have a side that has been playing in the competition for over ten years (formerly WA Reds) is a sign of the commitment of West Australian rugby league. 

Various polls conducted by both the Courier Mail and The Daily Telegraph over the last five years have shown the broader rugby league fans’ interest in having a Western Australian side as the next expansion club, with Perth always polling highly along with a second Brisbane team.
While commercially it appears to make sense from a television timeslot and ratings point of view, the logistical aspects of travel and enticing current players to the other side of the country could prove challenging. 

Former Western Reds’ player Mark Geyer regularly expresses his opinion that a side based in Perth could function in the NRL again. His views appear to be backed up by the crowd figures drawn to recent NRL games at the rectangular-shaped NIB Stadium. Games featuring the New Zealand Warriors in Perth have attracted over 20,000+ crowds on the last three occasions, while games between other NRL sides have been anywhere from the 13-15K mark. 

NIB Stadium has hosted at least one NRL match every season for the last five years.

The NRL has obviously ear-marked Perth as a potential market to grow the game, as they are locked-in to take a State of Origin game to the city in 2019. In what will be a first for the game’s most commercially-portable product, the yet-to-be-completed Perth Stadium will likely host around 65,000 fans for the landmark match. 

With Sydney’s ANZ Stadium set to be out of full-functioning capacity for up to four years while it undergoes a rebuild, the new Perth Stadium could prove to be a potential site for an NRL Grand Final should the NRL decide to press into the West Coast.

A strategic and aggressive move into Perth with an Origin match in 2019, NRL Grand Final in 2020, and a team to begin playing from 2021 could help set-up a franchise with every possible chance of establishing firm foundations in the West. Perhaps the team could be ready to go in 2020, leaving a tantalising prospect of making a home Grand-Final in their first year. 

While these are simply dreamed scenarios’, it is the type of vision that Rugby League as a sport and the NRL as an organisation lacks. For too long the League has rested on its laurels and failed to make any real progression outside its heartlands. Take last season’s blowing of the record-breaking TV money and the clubs’ debts running up to phenomenal amounts. 

The new Perth Stadium in Rugby layout.

The Perth Wildcats NBL club has achieved regular success in the small but unique Australia domestic basketball competition, and most notably, they have one of the most consistent crowd figures in the league. Attendances of over 10,000 habitually pack into the 14,000-capacity Perth Arena, creating an atmosphere some NRL clubs would only dream of. 

The Fremantle Dockers and West Coast Eagles operate out of the West in the AFL and have achieved success throughout their histories. The Dockers have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, but both clubs enjoy a huge base of junior and lower-level competitions to strengthen their bases. 

That is the main hurdle the NRL will have to overcome, but drawing inspiration from the Wildcats and learning the lessons from the Gold Coast Titans expansion will put them on a good path. 

The Wildcats success proves the Perth public’s thirst for sport is there and ready. The Force’s expulsion might have just made it a little drier. 

The NRL should wet their palate and make the move. 

The time is right, the time is now.