ARL commission chairman Peter V’landys was bullish, and perhaps rather defensive about the AFL formulating a strategy to take over the NRL in Queensland.
It sounds ridiculous, but the threat of the AFL making inroads into rugby league heartland is very real.
It was announced that due to the COVID-19 crisis in Victoria, the AFL grand final will be played outside of Melbourne for the first time in the competitions 123-year history. With Queensland edging out rival bids from the Western Australia and South Australia state governments, the AFL will be looking to promote and grow the game in the Sunshine State by putting on a “festival of footy” leading into the decider on Saturday October 24th at the Gabba.
While V’landys baulks at the idea of Queensland NRL fans flocking to the AFL because of a one-off grand final being played in Brisbane, it is certainly a springboard to a long term plan for the code to become a strong presence in the rugby league dominated state.
Will we see droves of rusted-on NRL fans in Queensland boycott rugby league in favour of Aussie Rules? Of course not.
What the AFL’s strategy will do is give fans the option of supporting both codes.
Considering where the Brisbane Broncos are compared to the Brisbane Lions in 2020, there’s no reason why disillusioned and success-starved Broncos fans won’t jump on the Lions bandwagon as they are a real chance of winning the AFL premiership.
The Gold Coast Suns are on a similar trajectory as the Gold Coast Titans, they are both improving. The AFL won’t convert loyal Titans fans into Suns fans, but if their strategy pays off and rugby league fans on the glitter strip take notice of the AFL, Titans fans may also decide to support to the Suns as well.
This will give fans a choice if both the Broncos and Lions or the Titans and Suns are playing at home on the same weekend, as to which game they would like to attend.
Fans will also have a choice as to which club they want to spend their money on with memberships, if they can’t afford both.
The Lions are currently outperforming their cross-code rivals this year with 29,508 members compared to the Broncos 27,463 – as are the Suns with 15,114 members compared to the Titans 7,836.
It would be fair to say that Cowboys fans probably don’t know what the AFL is, but don’t be surprised if the AFL looks to expand to North Queensland sometime in the future.
V’landys doesn’t believe Brisbane hosting the AFL grand final one time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, before the AFL’s showpiece event returns to the MCG in Melbourne until 2058, will have any impact at all.
But at least the AFL can say they have delivered a grand final to Queensland. They could have easily taken their showpiece event to the Adelaide Oval or Optus Stadium in Perth, both of which is AFL heartland.
The NRL has continuously snubbed Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium as a potential host for their grand final, much to the disdain of Queensland rugby league fans.
The AFL threat doesn’t end by attempting to steal NRL fans, the Brisbane Lions have already ran community and school programs in Ipswich and Toowoomba, targeting Brisbane’s western corridor regions which has around 19,000 rugby league juniors and the plan is to give those juniors a choice between rugby league and Aussie Rules.
Ipswich Jets and Western Corridor NRL bid chairman Steve Johnson has already expressed his concern with the AFL making inroads into the regions he believes deserve an NRL team.
“One of the real risks to rugby league is the loss of volunteers to other codes if kids choose to play those codes instead of rugby league and parents start contributing to those other codes.
“Additionally the AFL, unlike rugby league is very planned and strategic when it comes to securing government funding for its clubs and that will also affect the game not just in the Western Corridor but throughout Queensland and New South Wales”, Johnson said late last year.
The Lions have already stolen the land in Springfield (halfway between Ipswich and Logan) which is where the Western Corridor NRL bid was going to base itself.
Construction on ‘The Reserve’ – the Lions new training ground (which will also be home ground for the clubs AFLW side), high performance and administration facility is expected to be completed by November 2021, as the Lions continue to expand their brand and the code into Brisbane’s western regions.
If V’landys wants the NRL to dominate Queensland, he would do well to strongly consider the Western Corridor bid, as many rugby league fans from those regions do not identify as Broncos or Titans fans and the thousands of juniors there are without a direct path to the NRL.
V’landys has received widespread praise for his handling of the competition during the COVID-19 pandemic and he has earned the reputation as the best sporting administrator in Australian sport.
But the one criticism you could put on V’landys is his reluctance to directly compete with the AFL in their own market.
For example, as soon as V’landys took over as commission chairman, he immediately ruled out expansion to Perth, saying it was a waste of time and money to expand in rusted-on AFL states, which not only upset a lot of the rugby league folk on the west coast, but his reasoning somewhat defies logic when you consider the success of the Melbourne Storm.
The AFL however, have always been optimistic and aggressive in their approach to expanding their game into rusted-on rugby league states, with the long-term plan to be the dominate football code in all of Australia.