NRL expansion bombshell: 20-team competition could revive Bears, include Pasifika team
The NRL has hatched a plan to take over as Australia’s No.1 football code by adding three new teams — including a Pasifika team and reviving the North Sydney Bears.
The ARL Commission has hatched plans for a 20-team competition in the most significant expansion project for the NRL since the Super League war.
News Corp can reveal Roosters supremo Nick Politis is behind a $400 million masterplan for the NRL to take over the AFL as Australia’s No.1 football code by adding three new teams — possibly before the 2032 Brisbane Olympics.
ARL Commission boss Peter V’landys confirmed high-level talks were held on a 20-team league at an Annual General Meeting of clubs.
“I am all for looking at a 20-team competition because you have to set yourself goals,” he said.
The Dolphins’ stunning victory in their premiership debut last week was emphatic vindication of the code’s decision to expand to 17 teams this season and now the NRL is keen to capitalise by exploring new frontiers.
A News Corp investigation into the NRL’s ambitious expansion drive can reveal:
■ V’landys is backing plans for a 20-team Telstra Premiership;
■ Three new expansion clubs are estimated to be worth $20 million in annual funding support for the next 20 years — a $400 million coup for the NRL;
■ A Pasifika franchise is the shock front-runner to win an 18th NRL licence;
■ The Pasifika club will be based full-time in Cairns and play a number of NRL premiership home games in Samoa, Tonga and Papua New Guinea;
■ North Sydney chiefs are open to merger talks with the Pasifika consortium to bring the Bears back to the top flight for the first time since 1999; and
■ The Australian government will provide tens of millions of dollars in financial support to help bankroll a Pasifika team.
Peter V’landys is backing plans for a 20-team NRL premiership. Picture: Getty Images
The 20-team proposal would be the biggest change to Australia’s premier rugby league competition in three decades.
The ARL expanded from 16 clubs to 20 in 1995 following the addition of the North Queensland Cowboys, South Queensland Crushers, Auckland Warriors and Perth’s Western Reds.
The 20-team format only lasted two seasons before the breakout of the Super League war, which led to two rival competitions in 1997 before a compromise triggered the birth of the National Rugby League in 1998.
Twenty clubs took part in the first season of the NRL before the competition was reduced to 17 in 1999 — the same number of teams in this year’s Telstra Premiership.
Now Politis confirmed major growth for the sport is back on the agenda after tabling his proposal at last Monday week’s AGM involving NRL hierarchy and the 17 clubs.
“Yes, I have suggested we go to 20 teams,” said Politis, the Roosters chairman with almost 50 years of administrative experience in the sport.
Nick Politis is backing a plan to expand the NRL to 20 teams. Picture: Sam Ruttyn
“If we want to compete with the AFL, we have to be truly national and be representative in every state.
“I’m not saying we expand right now.
“But over the next five, eight or 10 years, we should look to go to 20 teams.
“We had 20 teams in 1995. Unfortunately some teams got killed off because of Super League, so a few teams dropped off during the compromise. Adelaide and Perth were cut.
“It would be great to see North Sydney back in the NRL.
“I strongly believe the Bears should be resurrected, possibly by going to Western Australia as the Perth Bears, and there’s areas like PNG and the Pacific Islands that the game can explore.”
NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo has previously flagged the prospect of issuing an 18th licence, but a 20-team competition has not been genuinely placed on the agenda.
Abdo and V’landys are open to unveiling another NRL outfit for the code’s next TV rights deal from 2027 and that could be the preamble to the rubber-stamping of the 19th and 20th licences within the next decade.
A number of consortia would be contenders for three new NRL licences, including North Sydney, a Pasifika bid, a second New Zealand team, PNG, Perth and Brisbane’s Firehawks and Jets, both of whom lost out to the Dolphins last year.
An expanded NRL competition could help the return of the Bears.
Adding more teams would deliver a fiscal broadcasting goldmine for the NRL.
Twenty teams equates to 10 games a week — an extra two fixtures per round — and would give the ARL Commission confidence of securing a TV rights deal north of $2 billion over a five-year term entering the decade of the Brisbane Olympics.
“The only way to grow our TV rights is by giving the broadcasters more product, just like the AFL,” Politis said.
“It will take some time for people to accept it, but we have to keep growing the game.”
Speaking for the first time about plans for a 20-team competition, V’landys said he supported Politis’ vision to continue expanding the NRL.
“Nick Politis is one of the great visionaries of our game and if he believes we should go to 20 teams, we should certainly consider it,” he said.
“If the 17th team went well, then, yes, naturally we will look at 18 teams and even 20 teams.
“The intention was always to grow the game in stages.
“It’s not something that will happen overnight. It’s an objective and we have to have the ambition to get there.
“One of the reasons the AFL do so well is because they have 18 teams and they have more product to sell in terms of TV rights than we do.”
Rugby league-mad PNG is a contender to host an NRL team in an expanded competition.
V’landys revealed the introduction of a Pasifika team — leading to historic premiership matches in PNG, Samoa and Tonga — is realistic.
“We will absolutely look at a PNG or Pacific bid,” he said.
“The Pacific region is a huge potential pathway for the game. It’s a very embryonic idea, so we have to do the research and the strategy.
“The Dolphins have been a wonderful addition, they have grown our Queensland audience, and it’s just the beginning for the game.
“Everything we do is fact-based. We would have to do the research (on a 20-team league) and look at it.
“At this stage, I haven’t got that data, but the 20-team idea has been proposed and we will investigate it.”
Souths chief executive Blake Solly cautioned the NRL against expanding too rapidly.
“The idea of 20 NRL teams, under the current operating model, is completely unsustainable,” he said.
“There is not the playing, coaching or administrative talent to expand at that sort of rate.
“At the moment the NRL haven’t confirmed an obvious candidate or location for an 18th team, let alone the 19th or 20th.
“The Dolphins have done a very good job building an NRL club in a short time frame. They’ve earned the right to stabilise and grow before another new team enters.
“Any decision to add an 18th team needs to be aligned to an NRL strategy to increase participation, properly fund the existing NRL clubs for the elite player development we all undertake, and be a guaranteed commercial success.”