In this series of blogs, we are going to consider areas that could assist the development and growth of Rugby League, particularly with the inclusion of the Toronto Wolfpack in League One for the 2017 season.
Our first two suggestions and bound to get people talking …
Florida has very much been touted as the next international expansion area, depending on the success of the Toronto Wolfpack; reports even suggest that the RFL are already in discussions with a creating a franchise in the Sunshine State. Florida already has a Rugby League presence in the form of the Jacksonville Axemen (http://jaxaxe.com), based in the north of the state playing their home games at the University of North Florida. We have also seen teams take their preseason camps to Florida in the past, Wigan being one and notably Leeds Rhinos playing a friendly in Florida against South Sydney Rabbitohs in 2008, in front of 12,500 fans. Russel Crowe was in attendance, which may have assisted in the crowd being so large but tapping into the University of North Florida student market could certainly work in the favour of an expanded team in Jacksonville.
Could a team in Florida work? Similar to Toronto, the trans-atlantic nature of the team ensures there would be scepticism about a venture to the USA but a successful few years for the Wolfpack would ensure that a team in the USA, whether it be in Florida or elsewhere will be seriously considered. The trans-atlantic issue will probably become a normal consideration as time moves on, looking at Super Rugby, teams travel from South Africa to New Zealand without issue so I expect travel time to be less and less of an issue as the sport attempts to grow.
One of the biggest reasons why Rugby League could work in North America is due to the short season of the NFL. The NFL is the biggest sporting franchise in the USA but only runs from September to the end of January/beginning of February each year – creating a perfect fit for the typical rugby league season to begin. There is a demand for NFL in the UK, as we have seen with the continuous sell out games held at Wembley and Twickenham – can rugby league fill the void left by the NFL postseason in return, in the USA? The opportunity that the NFL creates for Rugby League, is a fan base interested in a contract sport that is only catered for, for 4/5 months of the year. Is Rugby League good enough and estate enough to tap into this market though? Would you trust Nigel Wood and Brian Barwick to successful develop the sport in the USA?
Perhaps the biggest issue for a team in the USA would be, is there another Eric Perez around? Someone who is willing to invest millions into a sport, someone who would cover the cost of the away teams travel and accommodation, in the same way Perez is doing at Toronto. We have struggled to get people to invest in the UK game and when they have, they haven’t always been able to walk the walk, after talking the talk – ask Salford fans.
If there is a willing investor and we have a strong Toronto side, why not expand to Florida.
Ok, playing Rugby League in Australia is clearly not expansion but it could be an expansion of Super League. Steve Mascord of the Sydney Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/rugby-league/by/Steve-Mascord-hvery) has recently suggested that if the NRL remains reluctant to expand the game within Australia, away from the Sydney stronghold then maybe the Super League should capitalise.
How about the Super League inviting teams from Samoa, Tonga, PNG to compete in the English pyramid, in a similar way to Toulouse and Toronto? The Super Rugby travel from South Africa to New Zealand, the Wolfpack travelling to the UK as well as the NFL example of playing games in the UK proves – it is possible and distance is no longer a viable issue for sports clubs. Cost is, and as above with the Florida suggestion, it needs wealthy investors but if Football can attract American, Chinese, Middle Eastern investment – why can’t Rugby League?
Picking up on Mascord’s point of Australian teams in the UK, why not? If you look at Northern Territory, South Australian and Western Australia, they get a pretty raw deal from the NRL. Why not take a team from Western Australia, Perth for example and add them to the English game?
If the NRL are not willing to play ball when it comes to supporting the World Club Series in the way the big players at Super League clubs are – then the English game should stand up for itself and take expansion and development of the game upon itself. What better way to make the NRL pay attention, than capitalising on their nonchalant approach to expansion. This approach is a big frustration to many Australian fans in terms of the NRL seeming reluctance to expand to other areas of Australia, let along a “world” expansion.
There is a hint that some Super League clubs are already looking to do this in a way to make the NRL sit up and listen, the rumoured Wigan v Warrington game next season in Sydney would certainly be a step in the direction of this. If the Super League play a Round One game in Sydney, tapping into a revenue stream, exclusively used by the NRL would be bold. It would be played at a time that many people in Sydney would be ready to watch a game of Rugby League after the close season and maybe the choice of watching an NRL trial game or a competitive english league game may give Super League the kudos it deserves in NRL HQ.
The RFL has shown that they open for discussions on expansion, so if the NRL door remains closed, why not have the discussion of Perth at Red Hall?
Ok bear with me on this one…
51 minutes from Leeds on a train, just over two hours in the car from Wigan, an underused 25,000 seater stadium built-in 2003, a vast number of rugby league fans living in the area due to its proximity to North Yorkshire. A move away from the M62 corridor to the A1 …
This one is a long shot and I would probably have more of a case if we had a strong team in York first but why not consider Darlington – if not initially for a new League One team but for a one-off game – similar to Super League on the Road back in 1998 when Wigan played St Helens at Swansea etc.
The Darlington Arena, built-in 2003, funded by the ex-Darlington FC chairmen George Reynolds (the less said the better), hosts Darlington Mowden Park Rugby Union Club, who ply their trade in League One of the Rugby Union league pyramid. The stadium relies on parties, conferences, the odd concert to be able to stay open; it is a stadium that is desperate for a new resident or a new venture – why not Rugby League? It’s a great 25,000 seater stadium that could do a great job of hosting a game or a permanent team. A short train journey to Newcastle upon an evening would certainly make it a popular away venue for most.
- The Darlington Arena – a Rugby League venue?
Darlington is served incredibly well served by the Virgin East Coast train service meaning that you are less than an hour from Leeds or just over two hours into Manchester. Being situated just north of North Yorkshire, you do find pockets of Rugby League fans in and around the County Durham area, perhaps supported by the positive attendances in the North East at the Magic Weekend over the past two years.
So why not – take a game to the Darlington Arena and see what happens? Wigan played Catalan at The Den in 2015, granted London offers a contrasting business venture to what the North East does, but Wigan are also looking for new talent, having scouts based in Cumbria and Wales – why not break into the North East market. What better way to get people interested than taking a game there?