Saturday, April 13

Why the NRL won’t allow another franchise based out of New Zealand. 

Calling all wealthy benefactors with a love of rugby league. Wanna own an NRL franchise based out of New Zealand, competing in the toughest competition in the world?  You reading this, Jason Momoa… Ryan Reynolds…? Because unless that’s who fronts the bid for the next NZ-based franchise, then there’s a fat chance of one getting off the ground within the next decade – if ever.  

There’s supposedly a bid in the works from a Wellington consortium, although you hardly hear from them. They’re called ‘The Orcas’ – their ongoing silence and inactivity suggests a name change to ‘The Sloths’ would be more fitting.

They’re obviously struggling to make a compelling or financially viable case, and you can see why when you consider Wellington’s modest and incredibly diverse population is also split across a variety of codes. Not to mention the stadium – but we’ll get to that later. However you look at it, it’s probably going to take the support of a wealthy knight or maiden in shining armour.  And while I’d love to be proven wrong, I hardly ever am.

As with most things in life, there isn’t one simple black-and-white reason why NZ will be denied a second franchise. It’s a combination of factors based around three things:

– Australian sportsmanship 

– money

– branding 

Aussie Sportsmanship. 

As referenced in a previous article (link here), most Australians are people my grandfather used to refer to as “c*#ts. They earn this descriptive because they can’t stop themselves from looking the other way when their country cheats, or “bends the rules”.

The idea of giving NZ a second team with improved odds of taking the trophy across the Tasman is going to be met with incredulity and disdain from most corners of the Aussie league community.  As far as they’re concerned, they’ve given us the novelty team. They might allow one more for PNG, but certainly not two in NZ.  For all the talk that everyone’s second team are the Warriors, it’s just that – talk. If you actually read into it, it basically suggests the best the Warriors or any other international franchise will ever do in the NRL, is come second. 

Slight segue, but a large majority of the Aussie population is also consciously and unconsciously racist. You only need to see the result of their last referendum to prove that. So if a side from PNG does get off the ground, you can bet your ass they won’t win a comp for 50 years. Australians would argue they aren’t racist or bad sports – “We are just a little biased and why shouldn’t we be? It’s our game and competition, so you should just be grateful to make up the numbers.” Being racist doesn’t necessarily impact a second franchise out of NZ, but there’s a large section of the Aussie community that still views NZ as second-class citizens – the jandal-wearing cousins who live out in the wops. Why give them another franchise when you could comfortably establish another one in Queensland?

The Money

The Warriors have Mark Robinson, the Rabbitohs have Russell Crowe, and if there’s going to be a second NRL franchise based out of New Zealand, it’s going to take a rich lister, (preferably with glamour name recognition), who loves the game and community, because another NZ club may struggle to ever be financially profitable. The NRL love good branding and if the likes of a Jason Momoa were to own or invest in a franchise, that would definitely help procure a franchise licence. 

There’s currently a three-horse race between a franchise based out of NZ, Perth and PNG – with favouritism leaning toward PNG becoming the 18th Franchise, with likely two more to be added by 2029. Perth, NZ and another Queensland side loom as the potentials for the last two spots.  

Without a wealthy benefactor to bankroll a PNG side, the Australian government is reportedly chipping in upwards of $60M to support this franchise out of PNG. The logic of which purportedly relates to the Aussies ingratiating themselves to the New Guineans before the Chinese win them over with their great food, cheap products and weird movies. It’s a smart move by the NRL to have the Aussie government financially and politically linked to the game to ensure its ongoing sustainability. 

Despite having heavily invested in showpieces like the America’s Cup, you can imagine the public outcry and talkback radio blowing up if the NZ government financially backed a bid for a second franchise from NZ. So that just ain’t going to happen. 

Branding

The other issue NZ cities have is population versus stadium size. How does this relate to branding? Because the NRL don’t want the appearance of half-empty stadiums. North Harbour could work but the Warriors would shit the bed with a second team based out of Auckland. You could argue it worked for the Dolphins – but Brisbane has a league-crazy population of 2.5 million. While I love the idea of a team being named ‘The Tron’, unfortunately Hamilton is to Auckland what Palmerston North is to Wellington – where all the students and cheap bogan car lovers ended up.

Wellington has a stronger league community and established competition and is favourably positioned to draw talent from all areas of the country. However Sky Stadium (affectionately known as the cake tin) is too big and dimensionally inappropriate for league, but more importantly, it’s a dud as a hospitality value. Which means they likely need a new stadium. All of this leaves Wellington struggling to force their case for the second franchise bid.

I attended the game against the Knights in Round One last year at Sky Stadium that pulled 16,000, and I came away with the feeling that we all would have had a better time watching it from home. For starters, it has piss-poor game-day hospitality, overpriced food and beverages, long waits at half-time combined with a lacklustre atmosphere that’s further away from the action due to the stadium’s circular design. Any club trying to encourage a league crowd to Sky Stadium will be pushing shit uphill. 

Sky Stadium’s 34.500 capacity also risks the perception of low crowd attendance.  You just need to watch a Wellington Phoenix game to see what I mean. Wellington needs to leave Sky Stadium to cricket and the All Blacks and build a 15,000 – 20,000-seat rectangular stadium with a covered roof. But who pays for it? The council, who are trying to sort out water issues and who took a hundred years to build Transmission Gully? Once coined the coolest little capital in the world, Wellington has more recently become synonymous with the coolest little bureaucratic nightmare in the world, where getting anything done takes a generation. Even if a suitable prospect were to emerge for a Wellington franchise, they’d have a challenge on their hands to make it work. But name recognition goes a long way… so it’s possible. But not likely, for other reasons outlined above. But we can only hope. The NRL have a habit of doing that to New Zealanders – getting their hopes up and then ripping the rug out. But wouldn’t it be great?

On second thoughts, dearest Jason Momoa, please fall in love with rugby league. 

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