OF all the Brits who might one day end up running an NRL club, it’s fair to say Mark Evans would have been a long way down the list just 12 months ago.
Best known for his work with Saracens and Harlequins in the other code, Evans had played a role in London Broncos’ tenancy at The Stoop as well as helping market this year’s World Cup semi-final double-header at Wembley.
But the Welshman’s roots were deeply in the other code, where he had been involved in the Bloodgate scandal of 2009, when Harlequins were found to have been using capsules to cheat the blood bin system.
All that changed when Evans was approached early this year by New Zealander Bart Campbell regarding the Melbourne Storm. The NRL champion was up for sale and Campbell, a sports manager and marketer, was thinking of forming a syndicate to buy it from News International.
As cursory as Evans’ knowledge of rugby league was, he knew even less about Australia when he first touched down in May to conduct a due diligence investigation of the Storm.
Now a month into the job, he is uniquely placed to compare the game in Australia and the UK as a business – and also to offer an opinion on why the fortunes of Melbourne and London, who operate in apparently similar environments, have varied so dramatically.
His both an outsider and someone who has had an insider’s perspective on the running of the sport in two hemispheres.
Chatting from his AAMI Park office on a weekday afternoon, he stats with what he sees at the major difference between the two sports markets. “The Australian market is not dominated by one sport, whereas in the UK, soccer is so much bigger than everything else.
“The sports market is terrifically competitive between the four football codes (in Australia), although soccer is played in the summer so it is slightly removed in the sense that for spectators and television, it’s really competing with cricket. It competes with the other football codes for participation and does so very successfully.”
But in Australia, as opposed to the UK, “rugby league has managed to position itself, over time, as one of the two critical television sports on the Australian roster.”
We’ll dip in and out of the Broncos v Storm comparison during this story but Evans starts by pointing out the Melbourne have Broncos in the shade “partly because rugby league here is a national television product.
“You get half a million people in Melbourne watch State of Origin. That’s massively increased from where it was but you have got big events in rugby league in Australia that almost transcend the sport. The grand final and State of Origin really do … they’re sort of must-watch events.
“So there is an awareness in Melbourne that rugby league is a big sport in Australia. In the same way that people in Sydney have to accept that AFL is a big sport in Australia, you can’t avoid that, you can’t ignore that.
“So it’s a lot higher up the sports agenda, I suppose, than rugby league is in the UK.
“Even the AFL, which is financially the strongest of the codes, is having to pump huge amounts of money, amounts you couldn’t possibly spend on the development of a sport in the UK, into Western Sydney as a classic example.
“Melbourne and London? Melbourne is four million people. How do you define London? M25 London has got about nine million and, I mean, everything in Melbourne is played in the middle. They only play out of three stadia – all the rugby, all the soccer, all the Aussie Rules – all in the middle of town.
“In terms of getting to a game, it’s a lot easier than it is in London. Most of the grounds in London tend to be in the suburbs. If you’re living in Barking and you want to go to Twickenham and watch Super League, it’s not an easy trip.”
The AFL signs players from other sports and gives them to clubs, gives expansion teams preferential draft picks and decides what positions need to be filled in each club, paying the wages of those employees the club can’t afford.
“That brings us to another difference – the power at the centre,” says Evans. “Although the differences aren’t as stark in rugby league, the whole power of the league and the power at the centre, are much more along the lines of the American model.
“So, the AFL are a very powerful organisation. They run the league, they run the sport, they run everything. The NRL, not so much but still more than Premier Rugby or the Premier League. They’re a much more centralised business model, which has some advantages.
“You can be more strategic, you can try and promote the benefits across the league rather than everything accumulating to a small number of clubs within the league.”
While elsewhere in this month’s Forty20, Steve McNamara reckons the NRL isn’t as unpredictable as it’s made out to be, Evans says it’s “probably the most competitive of the football codes in Australia.
“Melbourne Storm, running second, can go to Wests Tigers last week and lose and no-one really falls over in shock. Was it a surprise? Yeah, probably. Most people would have said the Storm would win. Was it a shock? Not really. They’ve got Benji Marshall, they’ve got Robbie Farah, they’re not a bad side – and they’re running 15th.
“I suppose Premier Rugby is the closest the UK has got. That probably goes down to eight or nine (teams) – possibly. In the NRL, it really does go down 14 or 15 in the way the AFL used to but now doesn’t because of those expansion policies.
“So that’s another big difference – not just because rugby league is a bigger sport but because of the way it’s structured and organised.”
You can understand from talking to Evans the way he thinks. He’s creating a list in his head, is if for a presentation, the way journalists rank things in terms of newsworthiness even when they’re talking to their friends in the pub.
Evans reckons rugby league, administratively, is still ahead of the pack in the UK and more like its Australia equivalents than other sports.
“They’ve got a licence system, they’ve got a reasonably equal divide of central money. It’s just that they don’t have as much to play with,” he observes.
“Greater Western Sydney really aren’t competitive yet.”
Marketing is also very, very different. “ The control you have over information flow is very different, it’s probably more highly developed in the UK.
“Because the media is much more regionalised here, all the radio is local … Melbourne people listen to Melbourne radio, Sydney people listen to Sydney radio. There are no national newspapers aside from The Australian. If you live in Melbourne and you are going to watch rugby league, you’re either going to watch the Storm or you’re going to watch it on TV. You’re not going to travel to Canberra or where-ever. The same for the Warriors, the Broncos, the Knights, the Cowboys.
“There are a lot of things that the sport itself can’t control. They either come to pass over long periods of time or they accidents of geography.”
Australians, historically, have appointed commissions whenever they were in trouble. They do it for corruption and politics and business and now they have one for rugby league.
“I think it’s a very good model,actually,” Evans says. “I think that the independence aspect, while by no-means perfect and I don’t think anyone at this very early stage is saying it is, is a good model.
“This isn’t just a rugby league thing, it’s all of sport but I think trying to get good governance and good strategy from Leeds where it’s all the teams sitting around the table is very difficult.
“It’s culturally … in the UK we’ve no history of it, in hardly any sport at all. It’s not just us, it’s Europe. The closest thing we’ve got, it might be the Irish rugby union.”
Evans says scarcity of international distractions is actually a strength for the NRL as it provides “focus”.
And so back to our central question: why have the Melbourne Storm excelled and fellow exiles London Broncos floundered?
“I have a fantastic admiration for David Hughes and there are many people at that organisation trying to do the right thing and doing the right thing,” he says. “I do think that growing a spectator based sport in an area with very little tradition of that sport withoutt the sport having massive television coverage is incredibly hard.
“Look at basketball in the UK. Thousands of boys play it. We tried to get a really big basketball league going in the UK , I don’t know how many times. We failed because of lack of arenas and lack of visibility through the media.
“I don’t think it’s any co-incidence that if you look at the NFL, what did they do before bringing games to Wembley? They saturated Sky on Sunday night for five years. They created a market where people understood the product before they even tried to get people to come along and watch it live.
“There are a number of things you have to have, there is no magic formula, but a number of things we’ve talked about today, London Broncos just don’t have. It’s not a huge television sport – there are some (viewers) – the grounds are all spread out and travel’s difficult, they have a dominant code and it’s a real tough thing to do anyway, even when all those things are going in your favour.
“The simplistic saying, ‘oh, it must work because there’s so many people’ – that’s just silly. It flies in the face of all the evidence all around the world.
“There’s got to be a significant proportion of people in that population base who are aware of and understand and have some enjoyment/interest in it. That can come from playing it, it can come from watching it on television. ..
“If you haven’t got that, it’s really difficult.”
Filed for: FORTY20 MAGAZINE