Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Expansion: Yes. Relocation: No. (2017)

This week Phil Rothfield, who is laughably billed by the Daily Telegraph as ‘League’s most feared critic’, decided to sling some mud at the Wests Tigers by suggesting they should be canned to make way for an expansion side.

The Tigers (along with Parramatta and Penrith) are competing with the AFL’s Greater Western Sydney Giants for control and dominance of the Western Sydney corridor. Last year Rothfield was singing the praises of the Giants amidst the salary cap scandal surrounding Parramatta. He wrote the piece completely focusing on the scandals around the Eels and completely ignoring any negatives about GWS.

This alone leads one to consider if Rothfield has a hidden, pro-AFL agenda. He’s entitled to that stance if he likes. This piece has no intention of rubbishing the AFL.

There have been calls from the same small group of commentators for years suggesting there’s too many Sydney clubs. The only thing that changes is which team – and it’s generally whichever side is performing poorly at the time. The loudest and most recent were directed at Rothfiled’s beloved Cronulla Sharks during their string of scandals. Now, Wests Tigers are in the firing line.

But fans should not be concerned. These are merely tactics from the media to create future stories to essentially keep themselves employed. Rothfield’s opinion now has several follow-up pieces on the Daily Telegraph website; one where he produces the results of his poll about which team should get booted and another, a retort to the suggestion by the Tiger’ boss Justin Pascoe, who said, “We are not going anywhere” – which could be a reference to their 2017 campaign as well.

All that aside, it’s time to address this constant talk of relocation and call the concept for what it is: utter stupidity.

Sporting teams are unique. Their players will come from all corners of the globe, but their fans are largely situated in the same place. Furthermore, it doesn't matter where fans relocate to, they'll always support the same team.

Relocating a team alienates the vast majority of their fans, who can no longer attend their games because they no longer play in the area they once represented (ie - near the residence of a majority of fans). Those fans will be angry and disillusioned and are very likely to stop following the game with the same passion. That’s a cornered market of customers who have all been lost.

Then there’s the issue of where they are relocated to. If a location without a team is keen to be involved in the competition, it will be to support their own local side. Trying to get these people to support a team that doesn’t represent them is doomed to fail.

Even if they do accept the team and follow it, you have achieved very little. You haven’t necessarily increased the population of league followers, because the new followers just replace the lost ones.

The AFL understands this. They have nine Melbourne-based teams in a similarly populated city, across a smaller geographical area than the Sydney clubs in the NRL, yet there has not been the continued calls to cull those sides or suggestions there’s too many.

South Melbourne relocated to Sydney in 1982, around the same time the NSWRL axed Newtown (and, briefly, Western Suburbs), while Fitzroy merged with Brisbane in 1996, a couple of years before a the three new NRL merged entities in Sydney and the two-year expulsion of Souths.

The AFL realises the obvious point, that expansion without culling teams actually increases your supporter base.

This is a mindset the NRL must adopt. There is nothing wrong with expanding the competition to 18 teams – but they have to do it without killing or relocating any existing sides. Furthermore, the NRL should be looking to new markets for expansion, not existing ones. It would be entirely hypocritical if they were to cull a Sydney side because there are too many teams in the existing Sydney market, only to introduce a new team in another existing market.

Sydney can cope with nine teams. It had 12 Sydney sides in 1967, cut down to 11 in 1984, and wasn’t reduced again until after the Super League war. Given the population growth in Sydney in the last 50 years, nine teams is comfortably sustainable. Like Melbourne, Sydney also has a Rugby Union team in Super Rugby, 2 A League teams and a team from the rival code playing in the heart of the city.

****This article appeared on Commentary Box Sports website on  June 28, 2017****

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