The days of buying premierships are long gone and for proof you need look no further than Cronulla.
At a time when the NRL is poised to announce a cap on football club spending – the biggest club equalisation measure since the establishment of the salary cap – there is clear evidence that opening up the chequebook doesn’t necessarily equate to success.
Take, for example, the Sharks. An NRL-produced benchmarking document shows the Shire outfit broke through for their maiden title at a time when they were ranked 15th for football department spending. The Sharks, along with previous premiers North Queensland and South Sydney, have consistently ranked outside the top eight for total football spend. The only team to spend less than Cronulla last season, the Gold Coast, defied all predictions to make the top eight.
On the flip side, the Roosters and Parramatta were among 2016’s biggest spenders but failed to make the play-offs. There were mitigating circumstances for both clubs whose campaigns were derailed by Mitchell Pearce’s Day antics and the salary cap scandal respectively.
However, it provides further proof that the days of splashing the cash don’t guarantee a return as the focus shifts to getting the most bang for your buck.
“I haven’t seen a successful model where you continually buy premierships,” said Cronulla chief executive Lyall Gorman, who also has extensive experience as an administrator in the A-League.
“The fundamental premise is you don’t buy culture. You don’t buy footy teams, you build them.
“Successful teams are those that have played together for a while and have values and commitment to each other, a non-negotiable resolve and an absolute clarity of roles.
“We do a massive amount of work on that. We did that at the Mariners and the Wanderers. Both of those were low-spending clubs as well. I remember in year one of the Mariners, we spent $4 million and Sydney FC spent $9 million and they popped us 1-0 in the grand final with Dwight York.
“For us, winning clubs and winning teams come from that total buy-in to culture and key values.
“At times you can risk that when you go outside the square. A lot of clubs focus on the marquee player concept. That can add some value, particularly off the field in a commercial sense, but it can also be divisive if you’re out there on $100k and someone is out there on $1 million.”
After a protracted battle, the clubs have won the argument for funding to the tune of 130 per cent of the salary cap, giving them the money they require to be sustainable. To ensure it isn’t squandered, the NRL will implement a soft cap on off-field expenditure from next year to prevent an arms race. The move follows research that shows club spending had increased by $15.6 million from the previous season, $6.7 million made up of football department spending. The bulk of that was made up of “unplanned” expenses, including transfer fees, fines, terminations and injury payments.
Clubs will now have to be smarter in their pitch to prospective players, with culture likely to be a bigger selling point than staff size or a marked difference in the quality of facilities.
“One of our recruitment strategies revolves around spreading the wealth, that we’re all in this together,” Gorman said. “We rely greatly on depth and have invested a massive amount in our sports science program with Andrew Gray and his team.
“Last year we only used 25 players and we would have used less if it wasn’t for State of Origin when we had five out. We’ve invested a lot in that part of our business.
“Recruitment strategy is really important in our view, sharing the wealth and having depth, having great sports science and having the buy-in around values and culture.
“We believe that’s a winning formula and there have been many examples of that over the years. You don’t buy comps. And if you do, so what? You’re trying to build a club that’s sustainable forever, not just be a one-year wonder.”