NRL Expansion: Brisbane’s Western Corridor cannot be ignored

NRL expansion is back on the table and with ARLC chairman Peter V’landys in charge, it is almost certain Brisbane will have its second team by 2023.

Fresh off a new TV broadcast deal, the NRL is now financially stable and V’landys believes a second Brisbane team will generate more value for the code and ensure rugby league dominates Queensland – therefore the time is right to expedite plans for expansion.

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At this stage, there are four reported bids; Western Corridor, Redcliffe Dolphins, Easts Tigers – who recently filed a trademark on the name Brisbane Firehawks – and the Brisbane Bombers, who will likely put forward proposals for an NRL licence.  

So how does the Western Corridor bid, launched in 2010, stack up to its rivals?

The Western Corridor would encompass the largest geographical catchment area, which includes Ipswich, Logan, Toowoomba and the south-west Queensland regions – all of which is dedicated rugby league heartland.

Demographically, the Western Corridor bid is far superior compared to its rivals. The Ipswich-Logan regions are the fastest growing regions in Australia, with its combined population projected to double by 2031. The demographic of the Western Corridor is similar to Western Sydney, and Western Sydney has four NRL clubs.

The Dolphins bid will be based on a peninsula, part of the Morton Bay region north of Brisbane which is similar to where Manly is in Sydney. The Firehawks and Bombers bids will base themselves in Brisbane’s inner-city metropolitan area.

Steve Johnson, the Western Corridor bid boss and chairman of the Ipswich Jets, is adamant that Queensland needs a fourth NRL team, with the sunshine state accounting for 45 per cent of all rugby league players but only three clubs, compared to 11 in New South Wales.

When it comes to juniors and playing numbers, the Western Corridor bid blows their rivals out of the water.

“The games projection for 2026 is 19,075 players in the Western Corridor from Queensland’s 69,733 players. So 27 per cent of all Queensland rugby league players will be based in the Western Corridor and presently they have no direct pathway into the NRL”, Johnson told your columnist.

“This compares to the 3452 players that Redcliffe will house and 13,054 players in Brisbane. If the Dolphins, (Firehawks) or the Bombers were given the next licence, then 27 per cent of the Queensland players would still be without a direct pathway into the NRL”.

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The Western Corridor, although based in Ipswich, will play its games out of Suncorp Stadium.

Suncorp Stadium is easily accessible from the Ipswich and Logan regions, as they’re well serviced with trains taking fans directly to the stadium or a 30-minute drive along either the Ipswich or Pacific Motorways.

Plans are in place to redevelop North Ipswich Reserve Stadium – home of the Ipswich Jets and where the Western Corridor bid team will use as its training base – into a 20,000-seat boutique rectangular facility if the bid is successful.

The Dolphins and Firehawks bids are backed by successful leagues clubs and the Bombers are reportedly financed by a consortium of millionaire investors.

The Western Corridor however, will adopt the community-owned model used by the NFL’s Green Bay Packers franchise since 1923.

It means the people of the Western Corridor regions will have the opportunity to make the new team theirs and own a stake in the club, by buying shares and having a genuine say in how the club is run, including the appointment of directors.

The Ipswich Jets QRL club are the driver of the Western Corridor bid and will be a part owner, but the team will be an entirely new entity with a new name.

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“It is always been intended that the naming of the new club will be inclusive and connect the fans across the region. To achieve that, the fans will be engaged in the naming of the club”, Johnson says.

“The great Arthur Beetson was part of the original planning group and there will be an Indigenous Australian connection to the club to honour the remarkable contribution that indigenous Australians have given and continue to give to our game”.

Indigenous greats Steve Renouf, Sam Thaiday and Johnathan Thurston have publicly supported the bid.

V’landys has stated that a new club would require $10 million just to get itself set up.

“We previously had agreements in principle in place (with sponsors and benefactors) to fund the club’s start-up which can easily be enlivened”, Johnson says.

Johnson also believes their financial model will be more viable and sustainable.

“Whatever bid is granted a license; a powerful leagues club or millionaire businessmen will soon tire of tipping in millions of dollars each year if the team cannot attract crowds to Suncorp Stadium”.

“When the game was seriously looking at expanding, we did considerable research into our fan base and the results showed that we would easily achieve the attendance we needed to be sustainable”.

The Western Corridor regions have a long and proud rugby league history and will have an organically grown fan base.

It has been well documented that not all of rugby league fans in Brisbane support the Broncos, but there are questions as to whether the Dolphins and the inner-city Firehawks and Bombers bids – entrenched in Broncos territory – would attract supporters to their club and crowds to Suncorp Stadium.

There is a general consensus that the people of Brisbane do not support the Bombers bid, as they are a club with no identity, no history and no affiliation to a Queensland Cup team.  

Johnson is also concerned about the inroads made by the AFL and A-League into the Western Corridor and believes the NRL can no longer afford to ignore the region.

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The Brisbane Lions have already set up base in Springfield – in the heart of the Ipswich-Logan corridor. The new $70 million Springfield Central Stadium (The Reserve) is already in the works, which will be the Lions’ training facility, house the clubs administration and become the home ground for the clubs AFLW side.

The Lions have already run community programs this past February in Ipswich and Toowoomba.

“If the game (NRL) continues to ignore the Western Corridor, the threat is very real at several levels. The AFL has already taken the land at Springfield that we had secured as the NRL club base”, the bid chairman says.

“This will see the Brisbane Lions, who have already made big inroads into Toowoomba, having a greater presence in the Western Corridor and the A-League has already looked very closely at expansion into the Western corridor”.

In the A-League, the Western Pride expansion bid is looking to base itself in Ipswich. They were told by Football Federation Australia that NSW and Victoria were unlikely to receive any more teams in the next phase of expansion and they were encouraged to continue with their bid.

If the NRL decide to approve another bid, the AFL and A-league’s footprint in these regions will continue to grow, rugby league’s biggest junior base will continue to be hijacked and thousands of juniors with no direct path to the NRL could be lost to the game.

The plethora of juniors in the Western Corridor region would guarantee the bid, should they secure an NRL license, will be sustainable in regards to player talent for years to come.

V’landys has also said that it’s important we do not cannibalise the Broncos in the south Queensland market and the Western Corridor bid will be the least likely to diminish the Broncos brand, whereas the Dolphins, Firehawks and Bombers will be directly competing for fans and corporate support.

“The NRL will need to be very careful not to damage its marquee club, the Brisbane Broncos and give the next licence to the team (Western Corridor) that will not just provide for the games junior player growth, but also have a strong fan base, because to be sustainable, the new team will need bums on seats at Suncorp Stadium”, Johnson says.

“The Western Corridor is home to some serious corporates who for the first time will have a team to support and again, the Brisbane Broncos’ corporate base will be unaffected, but (will be) at risk if another bid were to succeed”.

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History shows that the Western Corridor has continuously produced a long list of top grade and international players and will continue to produce some of the game’s best players for generations to come.

The likes of Arthur Beetson, Allan Langer, the Walters Brothers, Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith, Darren Lockyer, Cooper Cronk; were either born or played their junior football in the Western Corridor region.

Even Wayne Bennett was born in the Darling Downs region and started coaching in Ipswich in 1976.

In 2010, ex-NRL CEO David Gallop was adamant about the code expanding into the Western Corridor because “that’s where the fish are biting”. A decade later, there are plenty more fish.

Thousands of rugby league players from the Western Corridor regions, from juniors to reserve grade, need to move away from their home and their families if they aspire to play NRL and quite frankly, many players won’t make that sacrifice, meaning the game is missing out on many potential stars of the game.

Of all the bids vying for the next NRL license, Johnson believes the Western Corridor is the only bid that can deliver what the game needs.

Feature Image: © Facebook The logo for the Western Corridor NRL bid campaign and bid chairman Steve Johnson (courtesy of QLD Law Group)