Want the Bears back? Then get real – forget about North Sydney Oval and commit to genuine NRL expansion
You know the NRL off-season has been quiet when the big story (at least of those less relevant to the upcoming season) revolves around whether the North Sydney Bears actually have 200,000 members.
In fairness to NRL Chairman Peter V’Landys, when he touted that figure earlier this week chances are he was reciting a talking point from the team he was discussing in the moment. Norths themselves once claimed they had 200,000 fans in a previous seasonal rallying cry, where they spread the word that the NRL should bring back the Bears.
And speak of the Bear and he shall appear! Because the same week our feeds were blemished with V’Landys parroting the same tiresome takes on the whole matter, North Sydney came out of hibernation to preach yet again ‘it’s time’. To the joy of lazy staff writers, no doubt.
If they’re serious about it though, there’s a sizeable hurdle to overcome. No one needs reminding of how little the NRL needs another Sydney team, so popular opinion is that the Bears’ hopes of rejoining the NRL lie beyond the borders of New South Wales.
To their credit, the Bears have acknowledged this as well and are openly prepared to pack their bags and set up shop away from home to realise their return to the big league – whether in the Pacific (where they have reportedly been working on proposals in that regard) or in the more popular and arguably logical choice of Perth.
There’s a catch to that, though. Norths have listed four ‘non-negotiable’ items should the NRL discuss a potential return with them.
Want to keep the ‘Bears’ name? Not a problem. Keep the colours? Maybe we could throw an extra one in but whatever. The logo? That bear’s head could do with some modernising, especially if you’re moving elsewhere, but we’ll get back to that.
But you want four games at North Sydney Oval, at a minimum two? Excuse me, you’ve got to be joking.
North Sydney are in no position to demand up to a third of their home games be taken to a 20th century relic of a cricket ground that would make Brookvale Oval world class. If you’re to represent a new market in the NRL but won’t play out a full season’s worth of home fixtures there, then what’s the point?
Now, if you were to ask this rugby league fan, who remains cynical about any proposal for an NRL team in Papua New Guinea or the Pacific out of questions of viability, then the logical option for relocating the Bears brand is Perth.
Suggesting this, however, brings with it a band of naysayers who argue Perth is too parochial to accept Sydney’s leftovers.
That shouldn’t be a barrier, because if we look towards the AFL, we can see clear examples in the Brisbane Lions and Sydney Swans of Melbourne-based identities moving and becoming successful outside the sport’s heartlands. If they can do it, so can Norths.
All it takes is some considerate branding that tells Western Australians the Bears are there to represent them in rugby league. Of course, if they do go ahead with the Pacific proposal despite its risks, they must then do it there as well.
Should the NRL consider either option, it must set some non-negotiables of its own. At a minimum, there are four things the Bears must concede on if they want their identity to be successful wherever it lands.
Firstly, don’t just be the Bears. If you’re going to WA, be the ‘Western Bears’. Throw ‘West’ and ‘Western’ into every other line of marketing material. If it’s the Pacific, be the ‘Pasifika Bears’. Embrace it and own it. Be undisputedly Western or Pasifika or whatever way you go.
Then, freshen up your brand to reflect that. You should be a new team representing a new market, not an identity crisis-ridden relic of yesteryear. That means a modern logo too.
Commit to your new home, which means playing at least 10 of your 12 home games there. Even better would be 11. You can have one game at Norths Oval, maybe another at the more suitable Central Coast stadium, but no more.
Don’t showboat the history of North Sydney in your new home. Again, you’re a new team. There will be opportunities to pay tribute to it, especially in the way of merchandise, but it takes a backseat. If you move to Perth, make some effort to acknowledge the Western Reds as well.
Outside of those essential times, the Bears should also be open-minded when it comes to other possible minor updates to the brand. Things like an accent colour to go with the red and black are negotiable but wouldn’t hurt, whether it’s a dash of yellow for Perth or a splash of cyan for the Pacific.
If they can accept all that, then a place in the NRL should be ready and waiting for them – so long as the league sensibly doesn’t buy in to the political football that is the proposed Papua New Guinea team.
Otherwise, the game must move on and continue to pursue real expansion in valuable markets like Perth, and leave North Sydney stuck in the past.