The Homer Simpson Effect

By Daniel Andruczyk

One of the things about my job is that once a month I make the 12 hour trek from New Jersey to Illinois. This drive means that I have a lot to think about, after all driving on flat stretches of land dispersed with corn fields does not give you much of anything else to do. Now in the past I have come up with a strategy and a “White Paper” of sorts where by I outline what I hope is a coherent path to growing Rugby League internationally and making nations more competitive with each other.

But recently I had an “experience” with a friend and colleague from work that made me start to re-think a few things. Its been a little over two years that I have lived in the United States now (wow two years already, where has the time gone!), and I have been able to observe through many different methods several of the worlds most competitive sporting markets and see how those sport and their clubs do things. I have also been able to talk with many people about how things are done and why and it started to dawn on me, that despite the money and supposed professionalism of sport in Australia, we really are a very poor, amateur and immaturely run show, across the board.

Back Story

OK so the background to all this. The other day my friend John was around for some beers and to watch the Wisconsin Basketball game. College sports are huge in this country, to the point where in some cases they are even bigger than the NFL and NBA. College stadiums in many cases are larger than the professional equivalents. Stadiums like in Nebraska or in Penn State hold over 100,000 and will be completely filled for each home game. The amazing thing is that in many cases the stadiums hold more people than the total population of the city and University. This had me thinking, how the hell do they do this?

John was able to point out a few things. So after the Basketball game I put on some Rugby League, I have a few DVDs etc… and he absolutely love it. Just the raw power and speed of the game and the big hits and he was able to pick it up very quickly with the defensive lines etc… . However he then started to ask some, well awkward questions like how big are the crowds, how the game is structured and other things. I asked how is it that the teams in the USA get such massive crowds. He very quickly pointed out to me it was over saturation.

Australia’s sporting landscape is over saturated with games, its the Homer Simpson of sport. You see in the USA less is more. The NFL has 32 teams, double that of the NRL yet they only play 18 rounds. 9 home games for each team. This means that a home game is a rare commodity and the way the league is structured that some games only come around once every few years, so any big rivalries the fans are just waiting and salivating for when they happen next. Its a brilliant system. John was astonished that we play 26 rounds and then 4 play off rounds. The NFL even with play offs still has less weeks than the whole NRL season.

Teams in the NFL are split into Divisions within their conferences. Each division has 4 teams that play each other twice and then they play the remainder rounds spread amongst the other divisions that are within their conference and the other conference. Obviously you cannot play every team so there is a 3-4 year cycle of playing different out of division teams till you play everyone once. So what that means is you have schedules that are 3-4 years ahead of schedule and fans can plan years ahead which games they want to see. It does work.

Amongst other things John was very quick to have a look at the distribution of the team in the NRL and said that it was basic how to do something like this for the NRL, and in 5 minutes he had it reasonably sorted out where division with traditional rivalries were set up. Now this is dealing with the NRL and you need to to this with the ESL as well. The reason I am focusing on this is because this has big ramifications on the way international rugby league can be played.

Too Many Weeks

Lets break down the way the NRL season and the ESL are played. You have 4 weeks of trials, 26 weeks of regular season games and then 4 weeks of playoffs and then 4 weeks of internationals, it does not leave very much to do anything else. Lets look at that math again:

04 (Trials) +
26 (regular season)
04 (Play offs)
04 (Internationals)
————————
38 (total weeks)

Out of 52 weeks, there is only 14 weeks left for players to have a off-season break and then get back into training. That is a lot of rugby league, particularly domestically, you can see how skewed things are. Remember origin all fits into the 26 week season. The English have an even longer season. With 4 weeks of pre-season, then 27 weeks of regular season and 4 weeks of play offs, another 5 weeks of Challenge Cup and then the 6 weeks of Internationals:

04 (Trials) +
27 (Regular Season)
05 (Challenge Cup)
04 (Play offs)
04 (International)
————————-
44 (total weeks)

So 44 weeks out of 52 are taken up by Rugby League. 8 weeks left in the year for everything else. I know some say you can’t have too much of a good thing, but seriously. Its ridiculous. So what if we were to go down the path of the Americans and go less to have more?

How Would You do this in Oz

So like in the NFL, there are some divisions that can form. So the NRL currently with its 16 teams has a very natural split amongst its teams with old rivalries that can be utilised. But the secret with this is that you have 18 rounds that teams play in with each team getting 9 home games. The plan would be rather than having too many home games where fans get complacent, you market the fact that you don;t have that many home games, that they are rare and for fans to see their team need to take the opportunities that arise.

So does it not make more sense rather than have 13 games where you average maybe 10 – 11 thousand, so roughly 130 – 143 thousand a season, as some teams do; then get say double that over less games, over the 9 rounds 180 thousand can turn up. Makes sense? So below these are the 4 groups that John picked out in minutes just looking at it, and funny enough they have all the natural local derby games.

Division 1 Division 2 Division 3 Division 4
Cronulla Wests Brisbane Manly
St George Parramatta Gold Coast Newcastle
South Sydney Canterbury Nth Queensland Melbourne
Sydney City Penrith New Zealand Canberra

So the way this would work is that each team within each group play each other twice, so you get the local Derby games played out, play on the big crowds and rivalries. Some great traditional games like The Sharks and Dragons, Souths and Easts, Eels and Bulldogs, Manly and Melbourne have built up a recent one. The other teams in the other divisions are played only once ion the year, but over a two year period they play home and away. So with this it means that you can have a 2 year schedule set ahead for fans to plan and think about.

You can also split the year into blocks with the mid year test and State of Origin to split them, and clubs will get free weeks, so they don’t suffer by losing their stars, which is something that clubs and fans have been complaining about over the years. So as they say, two birds. With teams playing each other twice in their division, that is 6 games and then 12 games from the other division, that leaves 18 rounds for the regular season, and then throw in 4 rounds for the play offs, you have a nice 22 week long season. So it would look something like this:

Block 1 – Rounds 1 to 6
Bye round – Origin 1
Block 2 – Rounds 7 to 12
Bye round  – Origin 2
Block 3 – Rounds 13 to 18
Bye Week – Origin 3
Play offs

With 4 weeks of trials, now the 18 weeks of regular rounds, 4 weeks of play offs and 3 weeks of the bye rounds, all of a sudden you have 29 weeks out of 52 with games. Much more now can be devoted to international scene. Now even with 6 weeks of internationals things are not so compressed. Players have more of a break in the off season. This should mean that these silly decisions where players are rested for a season from internationals should not happen, that the INTERNATIONAL game never takes a back seat.

The Play-Offs

The play off would also be a bit different. Now yes I would maintain the current system of the top 4 play each other first and the bottom 4 as well etc… BUT the way the top 8 is chosen and ranked is a bit different. So each division would have the top 2 teams go through to the play offs, but the ranking would come down to which teams have the highest points and if teams have the same points you go to point differential.

This is to try and negate the fact that if you have one division that may be stronger than others that they don’t get disadvantaged. There is the chance that the number 2 placed team in a division has more points than a team that is ranked 1 in another division. But aside from this I would keep the play off system as it is. There is no point trying to change that.

Can Super League be Done this Way Too?

Sure, why not. However with 14 teams there will be one lob-sided division. Or The RFL can take a gamble and go to 15 or 16 teams as well. But lets keep with the current 14 teams. They would split up into three division also based on rough geographic considerations. Two fo the divisions would have 5 teams while one has 4 teams. All teams play each other twice while the team in the smaller division then can get one more game against another team.

Division 1 Division 2 Division 3
Leeds Wigan London
Bradford Warrington Catalans
Huddersfield St Helens Wakefield
Hull KR Salford Castleford
Hull FC Widnes

It would be better if it went to 15 teams. Ideally I would like to see a Cumbrian team come into the Super League. Its a Rugby League heartland that has been neglected far too long. Results in the last few years in the various tri-county championships have shown they are a force to be reckoned with.

As with the NRL teams in each division will play each other twice and teams in the other divisions only once. This also comes out to 18 rounds. Now remember that also there are about 5 rounds of Challenge Cup that need to be taken into account. I can see the season being made in the following way:

Block 1 – Rounds 1 to 4
Challenge Cup
Block 2 – Rounds 5 to 8
Challenge Cup
Block 3 – Rounds 9 to 12
Challenge Cup – Quarter Finals
Block 4 – Rounds 13 to 16
Challenge Cup – Semi Final
Block 5 – Rounds 17 to 18
Challenge Cup Final
Play offs

Once again, the play offs will be similar to what I had outlined in the NRL. The overall number of weeks of playing would be almost the same as in Australia. With the 4 pre-season games, 18 weeks of regular season, 5 weeks of Challenge Cup, and 4 weeks of play offs, there are 31 weeks out of 52 that are now with games. Far less than now. With a 6 week of Internationals can still be fit in nicely without over extending the players.

Summary

Can the domestic season be done such that less is more? I believe so. By looking at the way sports are done in the USA I feel that Rugby League in Australia and the UK is over saturated. By cutting down the season and making home games more of a precious thing for fans to go to you can have crowd numbers increase by about 25%. This of course would require clubs to do some actual promotion of the game day. With the reduced numbers of domestic games more time can be spent for internationals without over working the players which is a concern for the Unions, but it means that internationals can still be the pinnacle and players don;t have to take their one year breaks as with this year, the International is treated with the respect it deserves. Players can still have their games and a good break. By making games more or a precious event, with proper promotion there is no reason why clubs can’t increase the fans that come through the turnstiles and thus the money that comes through.

So I hope that maybe I have given some food for though and given another out of the box perspective on things with the greatest game, Rugby League.

 

Daniel Andruczyk’s email: daniel@rugbyleagueinternationalscores.com
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28 Responses to “The Homer Simpson Effect”

  1. Ashley says:

    I’ve tinkered around with ideas like this before And i think divisions would work very well in Australia considering the geography of the country. Like the states it’s practically ready made to be split up by geography and rivalry to maximise derbies.

    However I think there’s a danger in suggesting such a one size fits all approach and saying this could work for super league. The UK is such that divisions would be completely unnecessary, even with a French club. There is enough trouble with promotion, relegation and license debates already without further complicating things. Super league has to decide what kind of league it wants to be, European super league or English super league with P&R returning. Not only that but ESL teams playing only 18 games would take a big hit to their pocket and likely their sky money too.

    Consider also football, lots of games in all football leagues, 38 in the EPL, 36 in Bundesliga both of which have huge average attendance figures. Plus in NA the NhL season is pretty long yet there are several teams who either sell out all home games or are filling 80-90 percent capacity regularly. So over saturation isn’t necessarily a problem for these guys.

    I definitely agree with the point of the article that rugby league seasons everywhere could use a much better structure.

  2. shaun says:

    Whether I would use your method exactly, I’m not sure. But the general principle? Yes!
    In the NRL, teams don’t even play everyone twice, so there really isn’t an excuse.
    If you could reduce the season to 18 regular season rounds, AND, guarantee clubs wouldn’t have their revenue/profits (the small number of clubs that actually make a profit) then I’m all for it.
    By The time the current regular season gets to round 20, i feel tired – and i’m not the one playing!

  3. deluded pom? says:

    As Ashley mentioned the SLE tv deal may not be as attractive to Sky with far fewer games to televise. You may end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater if the possible extra revenue generated from more people attending matches isn’t enough to cover the shortfall from a reduced tv deal. Catch 22.

  4. Shaun O says:

    Game day attendances may increase by 25%, but with 33% less matches.

    I can’t see SL clubs agreeing to this

  5. PacificCoastRL says:

    I know that what I am proposing it quite in line with your article’s point, but – As far as the imbalanced divisions in Super League, I think it would be wise to cut two teams and have three divisions of four teams. I think that would help somewhat in improving the overall quality of the competition. Too many teams, currently, are not competitive enough, never have been and never will be.

  6. Waterboy says:

    A couple of points re your plan Druzik

    1. The US has a population more than 10 times that of Australia
    2. The football looving smaller population of Australia is basically split in two between NRL and AFL fans and few have an interest in attending their non preferred code’s games
    3. No city in the US has a saturation of professional sporting teams of one code like Sydney does with NRL clubs. To have two teams in the one US is extremely rare with major cities like NY have only two teams but having a population 3 times plus that of Sydney
    4. Your plans would spell the death knell for suburban sporting grounds. The NRL’s 5 year plan want a crowd average of 20K, this figure cant be achieved playing out of the likes of Brookvale and Leichardt. They dont hold that many people. Your ‘increase the crowds by lessening the games’ means that clubs would have to move their home games to bigger capacity venues.

    I dont mind your idea in principles but its not as simple as you outline above. There are some significant differences between sports and sporting markets.

    I much prefer the two conference model. All the Sydney teams in one, all the others plus Manly in the other. Bring in two new outside of Sydney teams in a few years (Say extra Bris plus WA) and you have 9 and 9.

    You then play everyone in your division twice and half the other division once equalling approx 22 rounds

    • druzik says:

      Interesting POints. To have a think about that:

      1. Yes and they have figured out how to tap into it. We need to do the same thing.
      2. There are plenty of league fans that do not go out to the games, but prefer to stay indoors, we need to get them out.
      3. This is true … maybe we need to look at relocation … blasphemy I know but maybe I and many others need to look at this?
      4. More blasphemy … maybe we need to look at getting rid of suburban grounds … are they restricting because they are so small.

  7. Interested Observer says:

    I agree that attendances do need to improve but waterboy is right, it’s about supply and demand. 250+ million in the USA with essentially only one pro football code. Yes I know we have arena football and soccer but the NFL is THE football played in the States. Aust has 27 million and 4 pro football codes all vying for fans, TV games, spectators, merchandising etc. The supply and demand is way out of balance.

  8. dragons4eva says:

    Good idea Dru however i think it’d only work in Aus and not Europe unfortunately.

    Australia could use the divisions as you mentioned as we don’t have the promotion and relegation as the UK does. However the ESL is trying to encourage new teams to professionalise themselves each year for SL.

    In Aus yeah it could work but UK wouldn’t .

  9. BIGAL says:

    This looks great only thing I think would be better to have NZ in Div 4 and replace them in Div 3 with Raiders, Storm or Knights I think that would be more fair to them.

  10. Cheyne Maher says:

    Great article Dan.

    I’ve often thought about a conference system and how it could work really well with expansion. Personally i think with the current alignment of teams there would be some complaining (eg Manly are the only Sydney team in their group).

    What could work really well is if there was two more teams, CC Bears and say another team (be it Perth/Ispwich etc).

    You could have three conferences of six, such as;

    NSW NORTH: Parramatta, Canterberry, CManly, Penrith, Central Coast Bears and Newcastle

    NSW SOUTH: South Sydney, Roosters, St.George/Illawarra, Cronulla, West Tigers and Canberra

    OCEANIA: Brisbane, Gold Coast, Nth Qld, Warriors, Melbourne and Perth (or the other new team).

    I think there is some really juicy rivalries in this set up, but i guess no system is perfect.

    I agree not everyone would have to play everyone (as the NFL works). With the finals i would consider the Super Rugby model where at least one (or in this case it could be two) teams from each conference make it through, which would be six teams, then perhaps the next best two overall, meaning there could be up to four out of the six teams from each conference in the finals, somewhat negating the potential for teams in stronger groups being disadvantaged.

    If it grew to 20 teams you could have four conferences of five teams etc.

    Overall i agree with you 100% in that LESS is MORE….it places more importance on each game, the standard would remain higher throughout the year, more room for rep/international season and possibly a 9’s season, less player burnout etc. And as you point out if marketed properly this could lead to better turnovers for clubs…The biggest thing would be the broadcasters (who have a big say and fair enough too)…Again though hopefully with 3-5 rep weekends (which could double as a challenge cup style tournament) there would be enough action to fill the time slots on Tele etc…

    Just my thoughts…

  11. Cheyne Maher says:

    Just reading some of the above comments re: our population v USA, supply and demand etc etc…

    While these are all valid, we can look at the AFL who have a similar “saturation” of teams in one city, yet have MASSIVE crowds… I think i read somewhere that the AFL have the third highest average per game out of any code in the world – from memory NFL was first and perhaps English premier league next??? This is a vague recollection, but the point is despite our high saturation of Sydney teams, this does not have to be a weakness (as proven by the AFL) and in fact is probably our strength.

    At the height of the Super League war when there was talk of rationalisatoin leading to “state of origin” standard footy every week (as the talent would be concentrated into ten or twelve teams), one quote i remember really well is from Sterlo…

    We might have a better quality game, but would anyone care….

    Point is, the games strength is in its tribalism and traditions and while it is neccessary for some natural rationalisation (when clubs become unviable), forced rationalisation is not the answer.

    So despite our much smaller population than the states, the NRL could still end up having a similar audience as what afl does. A few things have gone against us in the past.

    1) The history of having leagues clubs in the early days, meant clubs were happy for fans to go there and watch the games and didnt put a lot of effort into promoting memberships etc, as the afl did. The NRL have only got on the membership bandwagon over the last few years, so give it a full generation to change the culture we too could have 30k+ at most regular season games

    2)The afl teams are very centralised, makjing the transition to centralised stadia an easier one. A quick look on wikipedia and the vast majority of the afl clubs are very inner city teams and many are 100+ year clubs.
    It would be the equivalent to the nrl never expanding to penrith, cronulla, or even parramatta or manly and instead still having newtown, glebe and annandale etc. The more “regional” sydney areas are obviously spread out further, but this could be a strength long term.

    3. RL is a better television product than afl and dare i say nfl – both those sports probably have a lot more action “off the ball” and hence attending the games really changes the spectacle more so than in RL.

    Any way, to sum it up, despite the vast differences in population etc, there is no reason RL should not be aiming to significantly increase its crowds….it will take a concerted effort over a very long period of time, but it should be the goal.

    Again, we’re a long

  12. Sharkies9 says:

    In the NFL, if a game does not sell out, the game will not be broadcasted to the local area. That helps get the poor teams to gets bums on seats.

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