Australian rugby league commissioner Peter Beattie has described the prospect of conferences in the NRL as a “huge shake-up” but is adamant no decision has been made.
- The NRL is considering splitting the competition into two conferences
- Under one plan, one conference would be exclusively Sydney clubs
- Those in the game have raised concerns about clubs in a non-Sydney conference
Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys and NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo have been meeting with clubs to set out their vision for the sport.
That includes splitting the competition into two conferences, with one being made up of only Sydney teams.
“We’ll look at what’s in the interest of the game,” he said on Monday at the launch of State of Origin for 2021 in Melbourne.
“That’s what Peter’s doing, and Andrew, they’re consulting with the clubs to see what their views are.”
He says the conference idea is early in its conception and the commission is still to review the overseas experience, as well as full implications for broadcasters, clubs and travel.
However, he confirmed a conference split was one of several proposals under consideration, alongside a team in Perth.
“We’ve got new media deals coming up from 2023, all those things have to be considered,” he said.
Blues coach and former Penrith and Roosters player Brad Fittler believes conferences would be good for Sydney clubs.
“I grew up watching the Sydney teams and the rivalries, so I can really appreciate how that would work,” he said.
“I’m not sure of the other rivalries in the other part of the draw, I’m not sure how that might work.”
The chairman of Queensland’s Redcliffe Dolphins rugby league club, Bob Jones, says the split is an exciting prospect, but he is concerned the focus could shift solely to the Sydney conference.
The Dolphins want to enter the NRL as the 17th team in 2023.
“Would it be good for our game? Is it going to grow our game? Is it going to give us more participants, more members, more viewers?” he said.
Research into NRL TV ratings shows that across games between 2017 and 2019, the Warriors, Knights, Titans and Raiders — all would-be members of a non-Sydney conference — have drawn the fewest viewers.
The proposal under consideration would mean more regular season games between Sydney rivals.
American sport conferences are mostly arranged from west to east and bring teams together that are geographically close.
However, American baseball uses a different model; its historical American League and National League groupings each span the country.
In recent decades, the Western Conference of the NBA basketball league has been stronger than the Eastern.
As a result, the Conference Finals have sometimes provided a higher standard of basketball than the Finals.
It also means teams in the West have needed to win more games — against better opposition — than those in the East to make the playoffs.
This season, the Golden State Warriors have an even record. They are on the edge of the Western Conference playoff race, but in the East, they would be competing for a spot in the top four.
Paul Green, the Queensland coach and a halfback at clubs on both sides of the New South Wales border, said there was “some merit” in the proposal.
“One of the things with any sort of conference-style, is just to make sure the two conferences are reasonably even,” he said.
He said travel is just another challenge teams have to overcome, because “if you want to have a national competition, unfortunately, we’re a big country, so it’s just going to be something you have to deal with”.