As season 2016 takes shape the gap between the haves and the have-nots seems as clear as ever. The chasm between the consistent performances of some clubs that remain firmly entrenched in the top half of the competition is juxtaposed with perennial battlers who, despite producing some players of quality, fail to be able to extricate themselves from the cellar.
Despite the media focus on the tightness of the competition, the difficulty of performing well in your workplace tipping comp and some unpredictability of results, the pattern seems similar to recent years.
While excellent coaching, injuries and other anomalies affect the ebb and flow of a team’s fortunes throughout the course of a season, there is no doubt that clubs in stronger financial positions hold more bargaining power in regards to player retention and acquisition.
In addition, third party agreement availability seems to be widening the gap between most of the Sydney-based teams and the more corporately minded clubs who draw upon the resources of entire cities and regions.
To numerically analyse this thesis, an appropriate sample size is required. I took the year of the Melbourne Storm’s first premiership as a starting point for two reasons. Firstly, to discuss the influence of money in the modern game without mentioning our friends south of the border would be irresponsible, and secondly, the 17-year period should provide data that eliminates some of the anomalies and provides a clear pattern or trend.
Take note, the third party agreement was introduced in 2006.
Three clear patterns emerged immediately after assembling the data. The Broncos and Storm have been by far the most solid and consistent performers over this period. The Broncos average table position over that period is a stunning 5.6. The Storm’s average of 4.3 is absolutely absurd.
The News Limited influence early in the piece and the desire for a successful foothold in the region was important. In addition, their ability to draw upon the corporate resources of Australia’s second biggest city has undoubtedly aided in maintaining a high quality roster.
The fact they were discovered cheating adds further weight to the imbalance in the game. There would have been numerous Sydney clubs unable to even find the $3.78 million dollars that the Storm had used to pay players outside the salary cap.
The Broncos have used the corporate sector in Brisbane and its surrounds magnificently throughout their existence. The ability to bump up contracts with third party arrangements has helped them retain quality. The influence of Wayne Bennett on this has also been notable.
Three clubs turned a profit in 2015 and the Broncos through their private ownership, corporate connections and significant purse strings were able to make an after tax profit of $2.56 million. 29,000 members make a big difference as well.
Not surprisingly, the Warriors were also in profit for 2015. The enormous financial and human resources available to them is the envy of the League. Why they can’t win more often is a mystery. They will be a powerhouse one day, trust me.
I won’t even go near the Titans here. Their potential and relevance to this discussion should be enormous, yet they still have failed to produce.
The NRL are estimated to have a sponsorship portfolio of around $27 million. The Broncos provide almost half that figure. That leaves 15 other teams fighting for half of the sponsorship pie.
When you combine these statistics with the ‘favourable’ draw dished out to the Broncos each year, it’s no wonder people cry foul.
It all comes back to one essential fact, that is, the corporately owned Broncos, Warriors and Storm came to a localised, essentially one city, competition.
That has created a playing field blurred and tilted in favour of the clubs drawing on resources from a larger catchment area. This has made things incredibly difficult for some of the more powerful and wealthy clubs in Sydney, let alone the battling ones.
The Bulldogs and Parramatta are excellent cases to analyse in light of their on-field successes and failures and their off-field financial arrangements. The Bulldogs have an average table position of 6.1 over the period in question, which is excellent and the envy of some clubs.
A loss of $3.5 million in 2015 effectively becomes a profit after the donation received from one of the most powerful and profitable Leagues Clubs in the country. Parramatta’s recent losses ($8 million in 2015) have also been incredibly high yet are also balanced by the backing of the Leagues Club which made a $12 million profit last year.
This only goes to show the challenge facing clubs without the backing of a profitable entity shadowing the club or having the financial injection of private ownership such as what Souths and Newcastle have experienced in recent times.
Despite this buffer, the Bulldogs and the Eels have both found the need to play outside the lines and use vast amounts of undeclared money in order to achieve success. The Bulldogs looked certain premiers in 2002 and Parramatta looked like they were building a powerhouse over the course of the last two years.
Is this now the only way a Sydney club can challenge the status quo and return to premiership glory? What of those clubs without the resources of the Bulldogs, Souths (who interestingly returned a comfortable profit in 2015 based on huge membership and merchandise sales), Parramatta and the Roosters?
The Wests Tigers are the most notable club who operate in a sphere that is far removed from the Broncos model. The Tigers have an averaging finishing position of 10.3 over the period, despite winning a premiership in 2005. It was a premiership that still astounds many, such was the flair with which they played, the risks they took and the unexpected nature of the victory.
Production of young talent has not been an issue for the Tigers recently. They are blessed with a current squad full of players they have invested heavily in over the course of the last decade yet, as with others who have since moved on, most believe that Tedesco, Sironen, Moses, Brookes and company will be heavily targeted by clubs with both club and corporate money to spend.
The end result will be supporters lamenting the loss of young stars and experienced professionals as they try to claw their way out of the lower reaches of the table.
The Sharks continue to suffer big losses, $2.2 million in 2015, and only secured a major sponsor late in the year. It makes what they have achieved this year even more impressive.
Finding the corporate resources to prop up contracts with third party agreements in a small inner city environment, a non-growth area for junior participation, along with the threats of other codes in a saturated Sydney market provides the Tigers with enormous challenges going forward.
They appeared to be on the brink of collapse earlier this year and let’s hope the new agreement they have struck assists them in their quest for long term survival.
All clubs have their own story to tell. No club has let more young talent go than St George Illawarra and their fans have been ropable after players such as Jack Bird and Brett Morris have been sold in recent times.
Much was made of Manly’s back-ended contracts, a strategy they used to hold onto talent that they couldn’t really afford. This has begun to unfold in recent times and it looks like a long way back to the lofty days of a decade ago.
The future looks grim for many of the Sydney clubs as they battle to compete in an increasingly market driven competition. Surely those financially strong will succeed in the long term.
Seeing a day where clubs in smaller markets and regions can compete with the likes of the Warriors, Storm, Titans and Broncos seems far off. Without significant support from profitable Leagues Clubs this situation might be even more telling and perhaps more commonly discussed.
Whatever the future holds, it is clear that money drives the current competition, as it unfortunately does most things. Let’s hope that history, tradition and integrity is somehow maintained while still allowing the game to develop, grow and compete in an increasingly competitive Australian sports market.