Ttwo weeks into the start of the 2023 NRL season, and a story that has captured the imagination like no other is about the Dolphins’ remarkable early success. The expansion team is top of the table, becoming only the third new team in 113 years – after the Brisbane Broncos and Melbourne Storm – to win their opening two games.
This has been followed by calls for a further extension of the competition, according to the Daily Telegraph, which reported that the ARL Commission plans to expand to 20 teams by 2032. ARLC chairman Peter V’landys has never backed down in shaking up the status quo and is motivated by a desire to dominate.
The question now isn’t just whether the NRL could grow to 20 teams, but also whether the risks of such an expansion would be worth the potential rewards.
The history of the Dolphins – who have been widely criticized for not signing a player in the tent and starting the year as wooden spoon favorites – has been a boon for the NRL, but expansion is no guarantee of success. Each case should be examined in terms of its merits.
The flattery currently directed at dolphins is well deserved, but it has some significant advantages. The club has a long history at the center of rugby league in a city that loves the game probably more than any other. They entered the NRL as the richest club in the league and signed arguably the best coach the game has ever known. But they did not receive any salary cap benefits from headquarters, nor did NRL clubs force clubs to fire players.
It is not a model that will work elsewhere and the NRL needs to look carefully at the framework surrounding expansion before committing to it. Rugby league has a long history of leaving expansion teams to their own devices.
But at least the 18th team seems completely natural. First, however, NRL must first explain its reasons for expansion and what it must commit to in terms of supporting each new franchise.
Additional revenue from broadcast clearly influences decision-making – more teams means more games, more revenue from advertising and subscriptions. There also seems to be a desire to expand the game’s reach both domestically and internationally. The Olympic Games, to be held in Brisbane in 2032, are seen as the perfect opportunity to showcase rugby league as Australia’s true national game.
However, the risks are plentiful. Financial stability is the most obvious point of contention, as is talent depth, and the NRL needs to introduce paths to get an extra 100 players to standard.
NRL is currently in an excellent competitive balance. The expansion team sits at the top of the table. In 16 games this season, 11 ended with a difference of 10 points or less. Parity is one of NRL’s greatest strengths, and growing too fast puts it at risk. In 1995, the most comparable year, the Cowboys conceded 60 twice and the Crushers scored three tries in their first four games. Four of the 20 teams won four games or less.
The location of any new addition to the NRL will also be critical. There was talk of bringing in a Pasifika or Papua New Guinea team – potentially based in Cairns or overseas. PNG would probably have its nose up, considering the Hunters have been in the Q-Cup for a decade, but given the cost of flying entire teams to Pacific islands for matches and the cultural differences of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, there are serious downsides to this plan despite his positive intentions.
Perth would be a logical choice for the 18th squad, given that it is a well-populated city that includes its sports franchises. The Reds had been around for three years and weren’t a failure before falling victim to a Super League war. Western Australia is also arguably the best place for a Bears franchise revival, as adding a new franchise to the already cluttered New South Wales market does no good.
But the NRL cannot seriously look at further expansion in New Zealand, where the Warriors have not been successful on or off the pitch. The country welcomed them, but failed to make any major inroads into the primacy of rugby union in the country. The Warriors are finding it increasingly difficult not only to attract big name players, but also to retain the best of their own young talent. Given New Zealand’s logistical and economic realities, it’s hard to imagine how setting up a franchise in Wellington or Christchurch would work.
These are heady times for the NRL. Expansion is certainly an option, but comes with significant risks and the league must proceed with caution.