The 17th NRL team will be in Brisbane. The one after that? Friends, let’s Bring back the North Sydney Bears

Matt Cleary 3
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In 2019 the Australian Rugby League Commission cobbled together a white paper of sorts, a plan to prop up under-performing Sydney NRL clubs with revenue that would apparently flow from broadcasters once the club had relocated to a new place where people watch telly.

Brisbane, Perth, even PNG.

Nothing locked in, of course, not officially. It was more a fishing exercise by suits in high places, the “paper” leaked to select media to disseminate in the court of public opinion. Politicians do the same thing with policy; leak a backbencher’s brain-fart to the papers, see how it flies among the populace.

Cheaper and easier than focus groups. Even more transparent, in a back-arsed sort of way. Policy played out in the court of public opinion; it’s how we roll in the twenties.

And lo did journos On The Pulse and in encrypted WhatsApp chats spread the love about the arcane and business-like practices the Commission was mooting to shift a Sydney club out of town, to ensure viability and profitability, to uphold the greater good, or whatever reason they might use to shift a team in a Ken-Cowley-taking-Super-League-to-the-massive-untapped-markets-of-New-York-Johannesburg-and-Hong-Kong kind of way.

Madness, of course. Relocation disenchants and disenfranchise existing fans, while new ones get a sort of half-arsed mob from somewhere else. A team they can’t really own. It’s like when politicians are parachuted into safe seats. Who are these people?

It’s a bad merge. Everyone’s sold a pup, a homeless hound that nobody owns.

See: The Northern Eagles.

But moot it they did, these people in suits, because Television told them to. Because eyeballs watching product are all.

And it’s hard to argue with such logic.

However! If that’s the marker, then the ARLC suited bean-counters should do this:

Bring back the Bears.

Yep: the grand old North Sydney Bears.

Video: YouTube

Granted! Adding a team in Sydney would appear to fly in the face of the “there’s too many teams in Sydney” argument.

I can see how that might appear.

But it should still be done. And it should be done because there is not a team in northern Sydney. And there are lots and lots and lots of eyeballs.

Consider: six hundred thousand people live from Kirribilli to Hornsby Heights, from the Roseville Bridge to north-west Ryde. And they don’t have a footy team to call their own.

And if you brought back the North Sydney Bears to represent these 600,000 people in the northern suburbs of Sydney – and the 400,000 people of the Central Coast – it would be an instant and irrevocable success.

Maybe not instant. Probably not irrevocable, either, given the volatile nature of this greatest game of all.

But Jeez – that’s two million eyeballs. That’s lotta eyeballs.

It’s more than watch footy in the catchments serving Roosters, Rabbitohs, Dragons, Sharks, Sea Eagles and Bulldogs. 

I had a yarn once with an academic, Hunter Fujak, of University Technology Sydney. He’s a doctor of demographics. He’s done the PhD, bought the T-shirt. He’s in demand by NRL clubs. He’s presented Powerpoint shows to many suits detailing the findings of his years of study into Sydney people’s sports-consuming habits.

And Dr Fujak’s research tells us this: Canterbury has 440,000 people in their catchment. Cronulla has 220,000. The Dragons have 260,000 (not counting the Illawarra). Manly has 270,000. The Roosters 200,000. Souths: 390,000.

New for old. Pic: North Sydney Bears

Only Parramatta (890,000) and Wests Tigers (690,000) have a larger catchment than North Sydney Bears would have. Penrith (590,000) is about the same.

Consider these northern beaches. On a fine and sunny afternoon at dear little Brookie, against the Eels, say, there’d be what – 15,000 fans? That’s a nudge over 5 per cent of the population.

Get five per cent of Northern Sydney to a North Sydney Bears game and that’s 50,000 citizens.

“Fish where the fish are,” is something my old man would say and he didn’t even like fishing.

And all those aforementioned Sydney fisheries have a team, while a one million-strong chunk of northern Sydney and its near north does not.

Thus a merge of Sydney Dragon-Sharks would be “logical”. As would electric Dog-Eels.

But like said abominable Northern Eagles, they would be horrible. Nobody would win, not even TV.

Because: emotion, tribalism, and all that good, “human” stuff.

Video: YouTube

People from outside can conflate Sydney’s north shore with the northern beaches. Same-same. But only like the two Koreas.

They are not like the two Koreas.

But they are separate, distinct entities. The Northern Eagles ultimately didn’t represent anyone from Milson’s Point to North Turramurra, from west Willoughby to east Epping. Like Illawarra got the socks in their merge and the Magpies got Campbelltown occasionally, the Bears got shafted in the merge. The Northern Eagles represented Manly. The northern beaches.

And the dominant partner eventually killed and ate their Siamese twin, and took the license for themselves, for they are nothing if not their own people.

Hard-nosed? Too right. But how can you blame Manly for doing the right thing by Manly? They knew: tribalism is good. It’s why people follow footy teams. It’s why they invest in a footy team with themselves, with emotion, with money. 

And it was bye-bye Bears to purgatory. But the region continued to grow. And today there’s 600,000 people from Kirribilli to Mt Colah who don’t have a rugby league team. And if there were Bears people would invest in the Bears, consume the Bears, love the Bears. And you’d only need one in 20 of these people to buy a jumper, go to a game, whack a sticker on the back of their Pajero and boom, they’ve brought back the North Sydney Bears.

The North Sydney Bears would be back and there would be, give us your best Rabbits Warren, deadset jubilation.

Maybe not jubilation. But they’d be into, the Northern Sydney Bear people, all six hundred thousand of ‘em, or whatever percentage the NRL could plane off and declare allegiance, and consume the club and love it one way or many.

Arguably the greatest North Sydney Bear: Kiwi international Mark Graham.Pic:

Had another chat with a bloke involved in the Bears’ ill-fated bid for the Gold Coast license. And he said the NRL told these guys not to use the media to play things out. And they didn’t. And the Bears didn’t get a license when using the press is what they should’ve done along with all the other weapons in their armoury to shift public opinion to the Bears.

Anyway: old mate also said the next step wouldn’t be Bears to Perth or the Central Coast or where I reckon, the northern region of Sydney with all those people, but rather … Port Moresby, for sweet Mal Meninga’s sake, because the Australian government would like to use rugby league to do something with regional aid or sufficiency, or something, I don’t know, I didn’t hear much more of his explanation because I was gob-dangling speechless that old mate was actually talking about Papua New bloody Guinea as a dinkum locale for a red-and-black comeback.

The Port Moresby Bears…

For mine, sports fans, that is freakin’ La La Land.

People follow footy teams largely because the team represents them, their patch, their people. It’s the same in Canberra as the Shire as Townsville TNQ.

People can also support a team though they’ve never set foot in their zone. They love the club. It’s from that place. They love that place. Don’t need to have surfed the Long Reef bommie to back the maroon and white.

Not sure how many of those boxes the Port Moresby Bears would tick, but I’d hazard a guess it’s none.

Bad News Bears: The Northern Eagles merge was classic cats and dogs living together. Pic:

And relocating an entity, be they Bears, Dragons, Sharks, Tigers, Roosters, whoever, well, knowing fans as I do, and being one of them, you’d just as soon they kill your team as see it move away.

After Norths were booted out of the bad marriage, mates of mine haven’t been to a league game since.

When Souths were kicked out, mates of mine followed Randwick.

There’s still people holding a candle for the Newtown Jets, though not enough that the Jets aren’t destined to forever be a reserve grade feeder out of Henson Park.

But the Bears are a different beast.

So bring ‘em back, baby, and fill Percy’s Bar. Watch the people stream across Miller Street and into Bear Park, and fill it full to burst.

They would dinkum hang from the trees.

And it would be magnificent.

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