Why Rugby League has a lot to look forward to in 2014 #NRL #RugbyLeague #TheGreatestGameOfAll #NewYears2014

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It is around this time of year where one has had enough of the flies, enough of the heat, enough of cricket (and Christmas leftovers) The appetite becomes hungry for something that hasn’t been seen since late September. Rugby League. It is close. You can smell it in the air. The anticipation of a new year, a new season, one that promises to be even better than the last one that just concluded what seems like eternity ago. So as the countdown continues to tick down towards Round 1, what will be different? What will be so exciting? What is there to look forward too? Why will be 2014 be the best year yet?

It sounds rather cliché, but there is multiple reasons as to why Season 2014 will be the best in the codes 106 year history. Coming off what was a ground breaking and in some respects, pioneering Rugby League World Cup tournament which was almost the feel good, shot in the arm the code needed, there is an element of hope and undeniable eagerness for that whistle to hurry up and sound in March.

NRL 9’s – The inaugural NRL Nine’s tournament is the first time in nine years (a coincidence?) that there has been a different format of the game played pre-season before the Premiership competition proper. The last being the World Sevens back in 2004. The Nine’s however is no stranger to the game. The Nine’s format first came to prominence in 1997 which was News Limited’s (News Corp) Super League’s take on the ARL’s World Sevens tournament. The NRL 9’s will be staged over the weekend of February 15th and 16th with a prize pool worth over $2 Million to the winner. A nice financial carrot being dangled at NRL club’s who must play 2 of their top 5 players.

Rep Weekend – Not for the supposed one off ANZAC Test match between Australia and New Zealand, but to see the City-Country fixture take Rugby League to a rural area, as the bush lives and breathes the Game. Parramatta Eels took a fixture to Mudgee last year and it was a resounding success. News that Penrith are also now taking a home game to Bathurst over the next few years is another great move. All NRL Club’s should be following suit. And let’s not forget to Pacific Island Test match between Tonga and Samoa. Both nations will be wanting to capitalize upon the international experience they gained at the Rugby League World Cup 2013.

ASADA – Because not only do Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks fans want it to end, all true blue Rugby League fans want it resolved. As we get closer to Round 1, we also hope that the whole peptide-growth hormone saga is coming to an end. There will be pain for some, but the game will bounce back as it has done, time and time again (it survived the Super League war did it not? What other sport could have done that?) and it will be stronger from going through this turbulent period.

Origin – I can hear many groaning already, but the challenge is there for both NSW and for QLD respectively. The challenge and pressure is actually no more than ever on QLD to go for a record 9th straight Origin series win in a row. And whilst many NSW and Rugby League fans in general want to see the streak end, I am one fan who loves and admires an amazing football team triumph and achieve milestone and break records. The famous St.George Dragons of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s set a world record that has never been beaten or rivaled; winning an unprecedented 11 Premierships in a row. The QLD Maroons are now etching towards such a record and I am one fan, who is wondering can they continue their amazing run of success? With the emergence of Daly Cherry-Evans, Josh Papalli and the likes of Milford, Barba, Gagai and Chambers waiting in the wings, one can’t help but think that the Maroons machine will continue to roll on.

The Premiership itself – 26 Rounds of entertaining, enterprising, athleticism and gladiatorial contests. The hope and renewed faith that teams that failed to fire or deliever on expectation will see 2014 as a chance to atone. The likes of the NZ Warriors, Penrith, St.George Illawarra, Brisbane and Nth QLD should be primed for a big year ahead. All have improved their rosters better than any of their rivals, recruiting smartly and strategically to plug holes and rectify weaknesses. Then there’s the Eels. Will Parramatta be able to climb the ladder from the cellar? It goes without saying that they will rely heavily upon Jarryd Hayne in order to do so, but with the likes of Corey Norman, Will Hopoate strengthening the backline, their young forwards a year older, and enthusiastic coach who hails from the District, they may just surprise a few critics and even their own loyal fans.

Expansion – When the ARL Commission published its strategic plan, it identitfied mid 2014 as a deadline it wanted to make a decision surrounding future expansion. With many a consortium bidding to become the next and news\est NRL franchise, the ARLC will have to think, long and hard, assess the pros and cons, the strengths and weaknesses and the opportunities that present themselves for the game to benefit and prosper from expansion. Perth and Western Australia has been knocking on the door for some years now and its case continues to grow stronger. A new upgraded nib Stadium built purposely for football,  the time difference would allow broadcasting to televise a live Friday, Saturday or Sunday evening game live into the eastern states which would help raitngs in a big way. There has also been calls for another team to be added to Queensland. But where? A second team in Brisbane to destroy the Broncos monopoly? A Central QLD team which would service Macaky, Gladstone, Rockhampton, shoring up a strong national top tier presence from Townsville to the Gold Coast. Whilst I believe it will be Perth and a QLD Team, I fear that the Central Coast, Wellington Orcas will not be considered. The Warriors are the New Zealand representative in the NRL and are starting to live up to their name sake, taking home games to new areas and markets across NZ, rather than being based solely in Auckland. Whilst the Bears campaign is not as strong as its rivals. 9 teams in Sydney and another up the M1 at Newcastle does not help their cause in what is already a saturated market. Interesting times ahead as this issue will no doubt cause debate and robust discussion in pubs, clubs and grounds around the country.

Will he or won’t he? – Leave the Melbourne juggernaut and return home to Brisbane? That is the $4.2 Million dollar question plaguing Cameron Smith. Making his debut with the Victorian based NRL Club in 2002, Smith has been a one club man, a one club player and in 2014 will surpass Matt Geyer as Melbourne’s most capped player. He currently sits on 261 Games for the Storm, and is 39 games away from playing an elusive 300 NRL Games. Will the game’s best leader be achieving this record in Purple? His Melbourne teammates, coach, management and members hope that is the case. And just quietly, I think he’ll stick solid and finish his illustrious career in Melbourne.

Generation Next – 2014 will see yet another wave of amazing talent gracing ovals and stadiums around the country. Whilst we got a taste of the Burgess twins, Milford, Oats, Harris, Mylon, Nofaluma et al. The upcoming season will only see the rise on another crop of amazing footballers. The likes of Luke Brooks, Ben Hampton, Paul Vaughn, Kane Evans etc. The Rugby League production line continues to pump out some unique specimens that continue to take Rugby League forward, improving the standard and making us marvel at their brilliance, as we sit back and watch their careers unfold over the next coming decade.

Four Nations – The more rep football, the better. Rugby League must capitalise upon the momentum of the Rugby League World Cup 2013. If the tournament showed us anything, it’s that the only way the game can continue to develop and grow stronger is by exposing more nations, more players to top level Rugby League more often. The likes of Fiji, Scotland, Italy and the USA surprised many at last year’s World Cup, whilst other minnow nations showed competitive brilliance in respective games. So the opportunity to see all affiliated members of the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) playing more scheduled Test matches and tournaments in 2014 can only benefit the game Internationally. Fiji is said to be taking on Samoa for the right to be be the fourth nation in this years Four Nations Tournament. But there is also strong word that the Four Nations concept could be expanded to Six, again, exposing more nations to International Rugby League.

Season 2014. It presents us all with the air of excitment; a new challenge for clubs, players, coaches, administrators and its fans. A clean slate, a fresh start. It won’t be long before we’ll be hearing the golden commentary of Ray Warren bellowing out through our televisions, evening sport shows filled with Rugby League content, walking into grounds and participating in the banter amongst rival fans, taking in the wiff and aroma of hotdogs, enjoying customary pie and sauce. Riding the wave of emotion as our teams do battle through 26 long testing weeks of the hardest, toughest contest in world sport. This will all unfold in around 64 days, 9 hours, 41 mins  13 seconds (But who’s counting?)  How good is Rugby League?  The off-season serves its purpose well.  It makes us long for the game we love so much. That being, “The Greatest Game of All”

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Why Membership is vital for long-term sustainability #NRL #RugbyLeague

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You're the Difference

In an age where viability and sustainability are at the forefront for any business or company, professional sporting clubs are not immune. Revenue from an array of sources assist in this process. All NRL Clubs receive an annual club grant, derived from the billion dollar Broadcasting deal. With the clubs making the product for what it is, they are entitled to their slice of the financial pie, whilst the rest is allocated to other areas of the game including development, marketing, community development and stored in the game’s war chest. Other streams of relied upon revenue include merchandise, sponsorship, gate receipts, commercial ventures such as Stadium agreements and something that is becoming increasingly important in modern day sport, membership.

 

Club Membership is seen as a crucial and key result area for long term sustainability for an NRL Club. Having fans and supporters of a club wanting to feel ownership of their club, their team is what most executives are banking onto assist in long-term viability. Having fans making the financial commitment and investment into their beloved club, hoping it will provide them with a greater sense of pride and affiliation, taking their status from a supporter to a fully-fledged stakeholder, albeit without voting rights, but nonetheless pecuniary patron.

Whilst some clubs are thriving with their membership, with numbers soaring through the off season week to week, other clubs are struggling to make the successful conversion and connection with their respective fan bases. Rugby League fans dread two things throughout a year. The first is their team not performing and missing the finals or ultimately not taking out the Premiership; and the second is the off-season. The countdown till Round 1 usually occurs a few weeks after the Grand Final with fans usually longing for the draw to be released, which brings about a sense and feeling that “it wont be long now”.

But I’m deviating from the issue, or shall we call it the rather large elephant in the corner of the room, that some Clubs, and club administrators do not want address or readily admit. That being their failure to connect; their failure to engage and ultimately; their failure to represent and identify with their fan base. You see, support for a team, a club is founded upon what some consider meaningless attributes or characteristics that stand out to an individual. It could be colours. It could be the name. It could be the animalistic identity. It could be the region. It could be a collection of these virtues that make a person discover an affiliation, a thirst, a desire for a team, a club, that it becomes their passion. They immerse themselves into fanatical support, becoming a staple devotee, apart of the fabric that the club will come to rely upon for when dark clouds form and when the brighter days reappear through every clubs lifecycle.

The digital age has only enhanced the way clubs can build their membership bases. The interaction between club and its fans is moving more and more online. Fans can purchase tickets, merchandise via the web. Visit club websites, utilize social media to stay informed and communicate. The benefit from a club perspective is that it leaves a path of information behind, which clubs can use to better understand their fans, but observing and studying their behaviours captialising on such and effectively using this effectively in a more targeted and central marketing and communications strategy and message.

 

Yet some clubs are still not getting it. Be it because of sheer ignorance or believing that on field success and star power in their ranks will be enough to ensure membership will peak and grow progressively. Naivety can be a curse for some clubs and their administrators. Perceiving that their brand is an attractive investment for sponsors and consumers alike.  But if that view and mentality is not translating into commercial investment and membership sales, then what is the impediment?

 

Take a club like Wests Tigers for case in mind. The Joint Venture club fits the bill to a tee. A 15 year old franchise, born upon the union of two of the games foundation clubs that share the honour of playing the first ever First Grade game of Australian Rugby League Premiership Football back in 1908. Wests Tigers is in a unique position, as it not only has one membership base, it has three. Old Balmain Tigers fans, old Western Suburbs Magpies fans and new Wests Tigers fans.  Yet, the club is struggling with its membership. It has the lowest members of any of its competitors, which again, considering its position, is quite alarming.

Reasons for this seem to be evident, yet there seems to be blatant ignorance coming from the Board and Management of the Joint Venture club. Back in 2000 when Wests Tigers embarked upon its inaugural season in the National Rugby League competition, the powerbrokers knew that it was imperative to provide both sets of supporters with a team that they could identify with, attributes which would res-establish that emotional connection that they previously held with the Tigers or Magpies. The Club issued two jerseys, one predominately Black, the other Gold with two Magpies, taking place and pride on the upper shoulder/sleeve of the jersey. This remained the case for 10 consecutive years, until the 2011 season rolled around.

Gone were the jerseys, replaced with two new strips, which old Western Suburbs fans could not identify with. Demoted to the cuff of the sleeve and reduced in size were the Magpies. That sat proudly on the shoulder for a decade. The club’s former CEO Stephen Humphreys when asked for a ‘please explain’ cited that it was purely a commercial decision, to maximize sponsorship dollars, but having a sleeve sponsor, a little higher up and that the new jersey design was apart of helping the club to establish its own identity and forge its own future. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t that day come in Round 1 Season 2000 when the club ran out as Wests Tigers? Wasn’t it again heavily confirmed when the Joint Venture club won its maiden Premiership in 2005?

 

The view, mentality and perhaps strategy was a dangerous one, as it went about alienating one of its fan and membership bases. Going on four years later, the club is now suffering from that disgruntlement and supporter backlash. Western Suburbs fans could not identify with something that did not remotely look like their former club and heros of yesteryear. The emotional attachment is all but gone. The little insignificant things that others may perceive such colours, jersey design, Magpies on the sleeves, mean the world to these fans. The Joint Venture club should know this better than anyone. Yet have blatantly gone about phasing out the Western Suburbs brand and presence, in the company it co-owns and disenfranchising its fans in the process. How is that good business sense? Add to the fact that the club supposedly represents the South-West of Sydney, namely one of the largest growth regions in NSW and perhaps the country, in the Macarthur region; having a current population of 500,000 which is only growing by the minute.

 

Yet news that the Club is looking to relocate its administration and training base further away from the South-West of Sydney is yet another slap in the face to the people and fans of Wests Tigers that reside in the Macarthur region. Instead of finally calling it’s ‘heartland’ and growth area home after 15 years, the club has instead engaged with the City of Ryde to establish a home in an area where Rugby League is foreign, with the demographics supporting that other ‘Rugby’ code.

Sport, in particular Rugby League is an emotional game. It is built on emotion, sentiment and forming that affiliation with a club that becomes a fans life, their pride and joy. Does a club seriously expect the same level of fanfare and support when it’s image, its identity, its colours, its branding changes significantly, which fans have been able to identify and connect with for the past 15 years? Again, these might seem like petty issues and minor misdemeanors, but it is crucial to ensuring you do not alienate one segment of your membership and supporter base.

As we continue on towards 2017, where the next Broadcasting Deal for the NRL will be negotiated and announced, hoping to only build upon the $1.025 Billion it is currently valued at, some hard decisions will be made. ARL Commission and NRL CEO Dave Smith is on record saying that sustainability is going to be crucial. The Game does not want to be financially assisting clubs going into the next decade and nor should it. If a company is in the red and can’t meet its financial targets, it is forced to close its doors. Rugby League clubs are also now in this caper. For the game to achieve its mission statement and live up to its brand, that being a ‘National’ Rugby League competition, it cannot afford to have clubs asking for a handout, which is inevitably slow down the process and progress of expanding the game into new areas and markets taking the sport to new heights.

It’s time clubs got their house in order. Made smarter, wiser business decisions. If that means, that it has to make hard commercial decisions like St.George Illawarra have had to do, by taking 4 of its 12 Home Games to ANZ Stadium in order to remain viable and set up a stronger financial future, then so be it. The challenge for club, Sydney clubs in particular, is not just acknowledging the importance of membership, but being sure of its capacity as a main key driver of revenue into its operations and business. We only need to look at the AFL and how membership has virtually seen the likes of Collingwood, Hawthorn, West Coast, Adelaide flourish for membership alone. Even the perennial cellar-dwellers in the Melbourne Demons who have struggled for onfield success and have changed coaches, and administrators like you and I change underwear still have over 35,000 members. Without them fans making the leap to membership, clubs like the Demons would be pushing daisies.

Failure to listen, to hear, to understand to acknowledge, failure to ‘know’ your membership base will ultimately result in poor revenue from its membership. And that’s certainly not good for business and certainly not good for the ultimate goal of sustainability. And just like the new NRL Membership advertising campaign suggests “You’re the difference”. Let’s just hope clubs make that known to their membership before it’s too late….

So where to now from here for International Rugby League? #RLWC2013 #NRL #RugbyLeague

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So where to now from here? Rugby League has just concluded its most successful World Cup tournament in its 106 year history. Record crowds and attendances; record broadcast ratings peaking at 2.9 Million in the UK alone. Emerging minnow nations in Italy, Scotland and the United States proving that they weren’t just holidaying, instead made history winning multiple pool games and qualified for the Quarter Finals of the tournament.

Such exposure has also resulted in many a player being discovered and offered a contract in both English Super League and Australian National Rugby League competitions. Fiji has scored itself a muti-million dollar sponsorship deal, which it will use to strength its resources to improve development and participation of Rugby League throughout the country. The USA will look to play Rugby League in its high school system for 2014. The Italian Rugby League are even talking about pushing to have their own franchise competing in the English Super League in the coming years.

The legacy from this Rugby League World Cup 2013, is there for all to see. So where to from here? Where does International Rugby League do now? What next for the game of the world stage? Unlike previous World Cup’s which failed to generate hype, buzz and interest from the public, the success of this World Cup will in turn, provide the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) with a handsome profit from the 6 week campaign.

As a result of this revenue, it must not drop the ball as the RLIF previously has done after past campaigns have concluded. There is talk of an expanded Four Nations tournament at the end of 2014, from Four to Six teams, to ensure that more nations are playing Test match Rugby League. There is also word on the horizon about a possible French tour in 2015 of New Zealand.  Papa New Guinea entering the QLD Cup (2nd Tier to the NRL) is a great initiative and platform for the Kumuls to build upon, exposing their top talent and best athletes to a much stronger, more competitive level of competition, which will benefit PNG greatly.

The RLIF must invest more time, effort, resources and funds into its affiliate minnow nations. It must work with and communication openly and transparently with all governing bodies from respective nations to ensure, countries like the Cook Islands, Ireland, Wales, the USA etc. receive all the support they can possibly get. The stronger the resources, the greater the development and participation, which is the essence of long-term success and sustainability. Stronger domestic competitions must be the focus and the strategic blue print for the International Board of the Game.

Scheduling and ensuring that there are regular and consistent test matches between all nations is also paramount. Rather than being held ransom by the RLF or ARLC, the RLIF should be putting its foot down, making a statement and outlining its international strategy and plan, establishing as much international Rugby League is possibly can around domestic competitions. There is a real sense, feeling and vibe of promise and opportunity to continue to build upon the platform that the Rugby League World Cup 2013 has created.

In recent times, the RLEF (European Federation) in conjunction with the RLIF has established respective tournaments such as the European Cup, European Shield, Mediterranean Cup competitions for affiliates and aspiring affiliate nations such as Greece, Russia, Malta, Hungary, Lebanon, Italy. Whilst the Atlantic Cup has involved the USA, Canada, South Africa, Jamaica. The Pacific Cup has included the Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, PNG, with the winner earning the right to feature in the Four Nations tournament with Australia, NZ and England every second year when played in the South Hemisphere.

The code can ill afford to pat itself on the back and marvel at the achievements, records and stats it has recorded from the Rugby League World Cup 2013.  The real achievement is to ensure that it builds upon this moment, with a strong representative calendar coupled by a strong emphasis and vested interest in ensuring that minnow nations are the beneficiaries from the revenue generated, where greater investment into development pathways, development programs and resources are made accessible to strengthen nations for the next World Cup in 2017.

The time is now for Rugby League to prove its knockers and naysayers wrong. Before critics can start to take the game seriously on the international stage, it’s time Rugby League started to take itself seriously. Believe in its greatness. Believe in its product. Believe in its message. Then maybe, just maybe, others will agree that is truly is ‘The Greatest Game of All’. Every journey starts with a single step. International Rugby League has started its journey. Now it’s time to see how far it can go…Here’s to more International Rugby League being played.