Believing that rugby league is a professional sport can be a grave misjudgement. Despite the outer veneer displaying attributes of a mature football code, there are times when this sport mirrors the amateurishness of a local pub competition.
The players, today, exhibit an unprecedented mix of strength, agility and speed, captivating their audiences with weekly displays of acrobatic endeavours, all aimed at scoring points. Moreover, it’s easy to discern which clubs are meaningfully utilising their $17 million annual grants and which are squandering them.
Expanding its financial profile through TV and betting revenues, the NRL seemingly has the resources to support players and clubs with lavish rewards, even funding extravagant trips such as the plush journey to Las Vegas to commence the next season.
However, the veneer of professionalism starts to fade when one observes the first week of the finals series. It’s a period when eager fans are crammed into small suburban stadiums, while costly, expansive facilities, taxpayer-funded to the tune of billions, lie dormant and unused.
An instance of this will unfold on Saturday night, with 13,000 spectators expected to pack into PointsBet Stadium in the Sutherland Shire for the Sharks‘ knockout final against the Roosters. Meanwhile, the newly constructed Allianz Stadium, worth $838 million and with a capacity of 45,500, will languish in the quiet, some 20 kilometres up the road.
Insiders within the stadium, ticketing, and clubs believe that the Sharks–Roosters final could attract as many as 38,000 attendees — almost triple the anticipated crowd size at PointsBet — if hosted at the Allianz Stadium. Regardless, the NRL isn’t going down this route.
The decision to lock out 25,000 fans from a post-season game makes one question if there’s another major code globally committing a similar folly. This isn’t a criticism of Cronulla, who are justified in hosting the match at their home ground. It’s been a point of contention with other clubs such as Penrith, Manly, and occasionally, the Dragons.
However, the NRL — the chief decision-maker on match locations during the finals — has followed a path of least resistance for many years, enabling clubs to host these matches.
This arrangement works well for clubs located in cities with no other teams or those like Roosters, Parramatta, Souths, and Bulldogs who regularly compete in Sydney’s largest stadiums. These grand stadiums are public assets, not club properties. Allianz isn’t exclusively the Roosters’ home ground, but a world-class facility that Sydney owns, deserving to be engaged as much as possible.
However, this system begins to unravel with clubs like Cronulla, who play on 1960s-built fields. The issue is further accentuated this year due to reduced capacity at PointsBet resulting from the adjoining leagues club’s redevelopment.
The NRL’s initial stadium policy under past chairs John Grant and Peter Beattie, and CEOs Dave Smith and Todd Greenberg, advocated for clubs to play in sophisticated venues such as the Allianz and CommBank Stadium.
Over time, however, the landscape altered as ARL Commission Chair Peter V’landys pivoted, advocating the $800 million allocated for Accor was spent on suburban fields and “centres of excellence”.
This strategic move was attuned to the fans’ fervent loyalty and an unwavering attachment to the convenience of local fields. The pleasure of watching a game from a suburban hill while balancing the urge for a beer or a toilet break carries an unmistakable appeal.
That said, the NRL needs to take a flexible approach and host finals matches in larger, grander stadiums when the situation demands. There have been threats of shifting the Grand Final to distant cities unless the NSW government commits to the $800 million Accor funding. Nonetheless, refusing to utilise costly, custom-built stadiums for rugby league‘s benefit undermines the NRL‘s negotiation power.
In a statement, ARL Commission Chairman Peter V’landys said the decision on the match location rests with the club, a statement countered by the fact the NRL determine where and when final series matches are played.
The debate then navigates towards the argument of depriving clubs of an advantage for finishing higher on the ladder, however, the more significant advantage is the reduced risk of being ousted in the first week if the team loses.
A plausible solution to play in larger, modern stadiums could be to offer the higher-ranked club’s members the first opportunity to buy tickets. This approach would maintain elements of exclusivity while maximising the utilisation of larger venues.
The shifting strategic landscape, the demand for increased fan engagement, and the introduction of world-class infrastructure dictate that the NRL needs to revisit, and possibly reform, its current operations. An amateur approach of serving club interests while neglecting the larger growth potential may no longer work in a rapidly professionalising global sporting environment.