Rugby league needs to bring back the good old days

Good old days ... Rugby League Week and John Jansen.
Good old days ... Rugby League Week and John Jansen.


There's a confluence of recent events in rugby league that makes Discord question whether the sport understands the tangible, bankable value of nostalgia.

The events in question are the refusal of St George Illawarra to call their second tier team the Steelers, the death of Rugby League Week and the obstacles being thrown in the way of North Sydney becoming involved in the Gold Coast franchise.

It's a marketing maxim that while social media nous and innovative marketing attract millennials, baby boomers have more money to spend.

And at the moment very little in rugby league seems to be pitched at those members of the game's audience with the most money to spend, the people who went to see Guns N' Roses in their scores over the summer and spend hours scouring ebay for a John Jansen 1981 footy card.

The Illawarra Intrust Super Premiership team was called the Cutters to help them attract a sponsor and when that sponsor left, they went back to be being called Illawarra. Surely adding the suffix "Steelers" made perfect sense.

But no.

The joint venture Dragons seem scared of a trademark that they, presumably, own. Do they fear the media and fans in Wollongong will actually prefer a tier two team to the local NRL side? Is there just too much emotion wrapped up in the Steelers name?

Two years ago I sent Shayne Bugden – the last editor of Rugby League Week – a long email about some things they could do to make a connection with readers once more. I had been moving from one storage room to a smaller one and part of the job was to arrange pretty much every issue of RLW ever printed, putting them in chronological order on shelving.

And it really fired my imagination about what the mag could do to connect with that wonderful past. Bring back each of the old features, one a week, on rotation. Mock up reboots of the old covers, such as the props dressed as bush rangers and the Kerry Boustead as Bruce Springsteen ("The Boss of Wingers:). Digitally "age" covers and pages to look like they did in 1985.

Rugby League Week was losing relevance – the least it could do would be to try and win back the readers it had lost, who've no time for the website or Instagram. What's more, many young fans have learned through American sport to revere the past in recent years. I was listening to a podcast called Rugby League Digest today and the host had read during the past year, he claimed, every league biography released in the 1990s.

While old fans might be dying off, there is a burgeoning interest in kitsch from younger people and this could have been RLW's function. New rugby league fans seem to have an insatiable thirst for the 80s, 70s and 90s. Perhaps my idea was no good and wouldn't have made any difference, but these are real phenomena as far as I can say.

There are myriad problems with the idea of the North Sydney Bears buying into the Titans. The biggest one seems to be that $7 million is nowhere near enough money. But taking one or two games a year away from Robina is hardly the crime of the century considering Canterbury are playing a home match in Dunedin this round!

An NRL spokesman was quoted talking about the future being the priority, not the past.

The problem seems to be that the NRL doesn't own the IP of many of the dead clubs and therefore has no incentive to leverage them. The league has just bought Rugby League Week's IP from German publishing house Bauer – surely the South Queensland Crushers and Adelaide Rams would come much more cheaply.

The NRL making money from nostalgia-driven merchandising and branding would be an outstanding outcome for the sport. Imagine being able to buy posters of those great RLW covers, of Newcastle putting out a limited edition of the jersey they wore in 1908 (yes, Newcastle were a foundation club, folks), of being able to buy an officially licensed Perth Reds jumper with "Geyer" above the number.

Once the cash registers begin clinking, the people at League Central would realise that things would be even more lucrative if they connected the tea cosies and hoodies to living, breathing football teams once more.