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.
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.
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)
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)
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?
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|
|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
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 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.
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|
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
Block 2 – Rounds 5 to 8
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
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.
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.
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