Why is constant expansion an obsession for Australian sporting codes? – The Roar

2023 could be the year of Australian sport expansion. Several codes have set out clear plans for club expansion in the near future and beyond.

Speaking at NRL headquarters this week, Peter V’landys articulated that there is potential for a Pasifika team to compete in 2025. Further south at AFL House, CEO Gillon McLachlan wants to introduce a Tasmanian team to the AFL, with that introduction pending funding for a new stadium in Hobart.

Also in January, former ARU boss John O’Neill expressed his preference for expanded super rugby competition – be it with new teams from Japan or on Australian shores.

Two of Australia’s smaller sporting bodies have also announced plans for expansion. The A-League has reportedly told Auckland and Canberra they are the preferred expansion clubs before the A-League increases from 12 to 14 clubs in 2024-25. Finally, in December 2022, NBL Commissioner Jeremy Loeliger told Newscorp that “there are pretty serious talks going on with a number of other cities” rumored to be Canberra, Gold Coast and Darwin.

What is driving this expansion agenda that seems at odds with Australia’s small population of 25.7 million people? TV rights are the dominant factor. More televised matches mean more revenue, which in turn leads to over-stretched broadcast rights deals and greater financial security for Australian sporting laws.

Code bosses regularly argue that these cash injections will fund further infrastructure and grass-roots development. However, these excess funds have historically been used to upgrade stadiums to elite levels, raise professional salary caps and prop up financially troubled professional clubs.

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In a highly competitive sports landscape, expansion also offers an opportunity to dominate certain geographic areas. This motif was historically demonstrated by the AFL’s incursion into western Sydney and the Gold Coast. The rugby codes are also attempting to capitalize on this method through potential international expansions in Japan (Super Rugby) and the Pacific (Rugby League).

More recently, expansion clubs have also shown a remarkable propensity to be competitive from the moment they are introduced. Western United were crowned A-League champions in their third season, the Dolphins are second in the NRL standings after their induction this year, and the Tasmania JackJumpers reached an NBL Grand Final in their first pro season.

The JackJumpers had immediate and impressive expansion success. (Photo by Steve Bell/Getty Images)

An expansion agenda also involves risks and downsides. First, additional teams can dilute the talent pool and competitiveness within a sports league. The English Premier League demonstrated this theory when it was downsized from 22 teams to 20 in the 1994–95 season on the grounds of encouraging development and excellence at club level.

Second, the financial cost of expansion is significant, with a limited guarantee of returns. For example, the AFL is reportedly spending $50 million on expansion clubs Gold Coast and GWS in 2023 alone to ensure their competitiveness and sustainability.

The financial viability of Australia’s sporting laws could continue to be tested as their expansion plans overlap with a broader economic downturn expected to affect Australia’s economy as a whole over the next 12 to 24 months.

How is the obsession with sporting expansion in Europe and America playing out? Well, it really doesn’t. In Europe, all major roundball competitions rely on a promotion/relegation system to ensure financial stability and continued competitiveness.

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Across the Atlantic, the NBA and NFL have also shown resistance to change. The NBA’s last new franchise was the Charlotte Bobcats in 2004, while the NFL’s most recent new team was the Houston Texans in 2002.

Why is Australia’s sporting laws bucking the trend and continuing to expand? In short, it’s seen as the most effective way to assert dominance over other sports codes in a highly saturated and sports-obsessed Australian market.

Which code will win the expansion arms race? It’s everyone’s guess.

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