As far as rugby league goes, Sydney is the most crowded market in the world. Nine clubs, more than half of the entire league, is wedged the City’s borders.
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, Parramatta Eels, Penrith Panthers, South Sydney Rabbitohs, St George Illawarra Dragons, Sydney Roosters and Wests Tigers all fight tooth and nail for resources, fans and the attention of one of the most flippant sporting markets in the world.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see how some clubs can almost feel irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, lost amongst the over-crowded market and left to fight for their share on several fronts.
It is a very real prospect that one or more Sydney clubs could be forced to find a new home given the struggle for supporters and reported financial mismanagement at the management level of the game.
The Daily Telegraph, one of Sydney’s flagship NRL-covering newspapers, polled a number of fans on a wide range of issues. They found that almost 40% of respondents touted the Tigers as the team that should be forced out of the Sydney market to aid the growth of the NRL and the club’s within it.
This figure puts them clearly ahead of the next most-selected, the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks (17%) and the Sydney Roosters (14%) while traditional heartland clubs in Sydney’s west, like the Panthers and Eels only received 1% of the vote.
Overall, of the 9000 voters, 63% agreed with the thought that Sydney had too many teams in the NRL.
The case for relocating the Tigers
This discussion comes at the end of a torrid season in which the Tigers sacked a coach and lost key players to rival clubs, whilst struggling near the bottom of the table.
Tigers CEO Justin Pascoe was quick to issue a statement in the wake of the publication of the poll results, strongly refuting any suggestion the club would ever be relocated. But that does not change the growing support for one of Sydney’s clubs to be moved.
Talk of relocation and a struggle to prove viability in the marketplace is nothing new. At the turn of the century, with the NRL facing a need to justify the existence of clubs in the Sydney basin, the Balmain Tigers and Western Suburbs Magpies were forced to merge, thus forming the Wests Tigers.
It has not always been a comfortable or palatable relationship. Initial concerns about the dissolving of the Magpies brand, with the Tigers name and colours far more prominent, were overwhelmed by a 2005 Premiership triumph on the back of a skillful and vibrant Benji Marshall. And in recent years, the growth of the Wests brand financially has seen them tip the balance of power in their favour.
As things stand though, of all the clubs in Sydney, it is probably the Tigers who lay claim to the weakest argument for not moving. Rightly or wrongly, traditional powerhouses like the Sydney Roosters and South Sydney Rabbitohs, with all their financial strength and corporate backing, are not going anywhere. The Bunnies might play well west of their traditional home base of Redfern, but they still represent a strong and vocal community.
Penrith, Parramatta, and Canterbury all boast strength in their geographical position through their strong junior bases and decent crowd figures. The Bulldogs are always a decent draw card, even during a poor season, while the Eels represent a hugely important brand in the league, boasting good crowds and membership figures. The investment by the Panthers in their local region, from the multi-million dollar academy facility and their ownership of the biggest and most successful junior nursery in the game, means they will remain safe.
On the southern side of town, the Dragons represent two huge geographical areas with big supporter bases in both St George and Wollongong courtesy of the merger between the Dragons and Illawarra Steelers. The Sharks have gotten themselves on a more even keel by investing heavily in their facilities and surrounding property before winning the Premiership last year. As a brand, the Sharks are more relevant in the Shire than ever before.
Manly represent the only rugby league presence in one of the few pockets in Sydney where rugby union maintains a strong community, so, coupled with their long history of success, it’s highly unlikely the NRL would want to shift the Sea Eagles either.
With all of that in mind, the Tigers feel like the only viable option, in the short to mid-term, for a Sydney team to be relocated from their current base.
The case for not relocating the Tigers
How can you move a club that won a Premiership in the last 20-years, represents two huge and passionate geographical bases in Sydney, and is already the merged result of two famous old clubs?
To so many people, the Wests Tigers are a way of life. These two sets of supporters were already mashed together and forced to coexist in order to survive. Can you really ask them, just 18 years later, to up sticks and follow the club to Brisbane, Perth or anywhere else?
Would axing or relocating a Sydney club do anything to combat stagnant, or in some cases, diminishing crowd figures? Wall-to-wall television coverage and the fact that too many games are jammed in to huge stadiums with no personality have made it a far more realistic prospect for many people to stay home, shell out their $50 odd to Foxtel and watch every game with cheap beer, cheap food and the home comforts we all love.
Others will point to the cost of going to the footy, especially for families. This is a hugely contentious issue. On one hand, people will tell you they simply can’t afford to pack up the car and take the kids to the footy without a small loan. Others will eat at home, take some drinks with them and tough it out. It isn’t solely to blame but there are definitely people who have stopped going to the footy because of the perceived hit to the back pocket. Moving the Wests Tigers, or any other club won’t change that.
Tigers fans could also point to some other Sydney clubs and ask why they couldn’t be merged. Surely the merger of two more clubs would free up enough space in the Sydney market to satisfy most of the concerns. It would also free up some playing talent for an expansion team elsewhere.
Some will point to the proximity of the Panthers and Eels and say one club could feasibly cover the area. Arguably they could merge or one of them could be turfed out of Sydney. As a Panthers fan myself, it’s hard to think of too many Penrith supporters who would follow the Parramatta Panthers, Penrith Eels or whatever moniker the PR department could knock up on that one.
People talk about the desperate need to move a Sydney-based club for the health and wellbeing of the game, but while there’s plenty of room for improvement on plenty of fronts, the game isn’t withering in front of our eyes.
We can look at ways to boost and grow the game. One of those may be the relocation of a Sydney club, but alternatively, the powers that be can look at a myriad of other options for reigning in the free spending at NRL HQ and for growing the game.
So how do we move forward?
It looks more likely that we’ll have the status quo for the short term.
The NRL would most probably be reluctant to pull the trigger and enter a messy legal battle in order to force a club to move while they would look the avoid the costly exercise of trying to entice one to do so.
Expansion also looks off the cards, given the inability for all 16 clubs to maintain their financial health without league assistance and the over-reliance on sponsorship dollars
It feels inevitable that the question of too many Sydney-based clubs will continue to come up and may, one day, result in the relocation, whether forced or enticed, of a club outside the Sydney metropolitan area.
Do you think a Sydney NRL club needs to be relocated to help the game prosper? If so, which one? Let us know in the comments and poll below.
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