NRL expansion increasingly unlikely in future

BRAD WALTER
Last updated 08:14 06/08/2014
Ricky Stuart
Getty
RAIDERS COACH: Ricky Stuart.

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Another dismal season in Canberra is raising questions about more than just Ricky Stuart 's recent coaching record, with expansion of the NRL now seeming unlikely unless existing clubs fold or re-locate.

Like the Gold Coast Titans, the Raiders are under threat from AFL and some within the game are beginning to wonder about the long term viability of both clubs in their current locations.

The crowd at Sunday's 54-18 loss to the Warriors was Canberra's lowest of the season and the Raiders are set to record their worst attendance figures since before the Green Machine era when they averaged 6918 fans per match at Seiffert Oval in 1987.

Their average home attendance so far this season is 9220 - the first year that crowds have dipped below 10,000 since 2001 and just the third since the then-premiers moved to GIO Stadium in 1990.

Having won just two of their past 12 matches and facing their first wooden spoon since Canberra's inaugural season in 1982, it is difficult to imagine the Raiders attracting fans in greater numbers for their remaining home games.

The club continues to produce and develop talented juniors but struggles to retain them, with emerging superstar Anthony Milford having signed for the Broncos and young centre Matt Allwood joining the Warriors.

The greater fear is that future talent will be lost to AFL, with GWS Giants playing three premiership games plus a pre-season match each year at Manuka Oval and Canberra boasting 16 clubs who field 83 teams in the local competition.

In contrast, there are 69 teams representing 17 clubs in western Sydney.

While the NRL has directed most of its resources in protecting the game from AFL in western Sydney, the ratio of children playing the rival code as opposed to other sports is 4.1 per cent compared to 5.2 per cent in Canberra.

With another 21 clubs and 95 teams in the South Coast, Illawarra and southern Sydney regions, the Dragons and Raiders are pushing for more support from the NRL to combat AFL's drive through their territories from Victoria.

Backed by the Canberra Raiders Group, which boasts nine licensed clubs and has other significant financial investments, the Raiders are in no danger of folding but some rival club officials have recently expressed concerns about Canberra's ongoing relevance to the NRL given their crowds, lack of interest from Channel Nine and the problems attracting players to the nation's capital.

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Doubts about the Titans future have also emerged after Gold Coast's new owners recently launched a review of every facet of the club's operations to find ways for the club to stop bleeding money.

Average attendances in 10 home matches so far this season are 13,382 - less than two thirds of the 21,618 average Gold Coast attracted in their first season at Skilled Park in 2008.

The Titans are in a losing battle with the Gold Coast Suns, whose average crowds have increased to 17,237 this season and are underwritten by the AFL to the tune of A$20 million per season.

Without greater support from the NRL to help them compete, some within the club have reportedly questioned whether the Titans should consider relocating and that would appear the best chance of a new region gaining a team in the premiership.

The NRL is due to consider expansion at the end of the season and the Brisbane Bombers, Central Coast Bears, West Coast Pirates, Papua New Guinea Hunters and consortiums in Ipswich, Rockhampton and Wellington have already established bid teams.

But after the NRL was recently forced to take over the ownership of Newcastle, as well as providing financial assistance for Wests Tigers, St George Illawarra and Cronulla, club bosses are unlikely to support any increase in the number of teams.

One influental club chief executive recently said he believed the NRL should focus on dominating the east coast of Australia by introducing more teams in Queensland, including another in Brisbane to rival the Broncos - but only if the likes of the Sharks or Raiders relocated.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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