By most accounts, 2023 has been circled as the year the NRL intends to add a 17th team.
The current NRL broadcasting deal ends after the 2022 season, so if the competition is going to expand, it makes sense to do so at the start of a new deal.
At least 11 groups have shown interest in joining an expanded competition, most of which are in Queensland, with Brisbane emerging as the favourite to land a new franchise.
But with expansion comes problems; competitiveness at the top of the list.
The current 16-team format already has its issues. You have your perennial heavyweights, such as the Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters, who have no trouble securing the best talent in the competition in bunches.
Then you have the constant strugglers such as the Gold Coast Titans, who have made the playoffs just three times since being added to the competition in 2007 – most recently in 2016, and the New Zealand Warriors, who have made the playoffs just once in the past eight seasons.
In the 2020 season, there is a clear gulf between the contenders and the battlers. There are the Parramatta Eels with a 7-1 record, closely followed by the Penrith Panthers, Roosters and Storm who all have six wins.
At the other end of the ladder, the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs have a 1-7 record while the Titans, Brisbane Broncos and St George Illawarra Dragons are not far in front with just two wins to their names.
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A 17th team joining the competition relying on over-the-hill free agents and young prospects is like making a lamb play with a pack of wolves. For an expansion of the league to work in a competitive sense, the NRL needs to take a page from the National Hockey League in the United States.
In 2017, the NHL expanded into Las Vegas, welcoming the Vegas Golden Knights to their competition. But instead of leaving the new franchise to pick at scraps off the waiver wire and free agency player pools, the Golden Knights were able to draft one player from each of the other teams in the competition.
Each team had a set number of players they could protect, with all others with two or more years' experience in the league being free for the choosing. The new team ended up with a number of marquee level talents and finished the regular season with a 51-31 record, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals before ultimately falling at the final hurdle.
The NRL should look at the example set by the NHL and take notes. Not only does this allow the new franchise the opportunity to put together a formidable roster, it also brings an element of strategy and foresight into the frame with teams potentially having to choose between protecting veterans or young stars.
The new team would need to take a strategic approach too, balancing the size of contracts they're taking on in key positions and finding the happy medium between top talents and handy role players. Based on current NRL rosters, if teams were able to protect three backs and three forwards, there would still be plenty of talent available in the draft.
It doesn't just benefit the new team as the NRL could reap financial benefits from the process and televise the draft. There's something about a draft that excites sports fans. Every year millions tune in to watch the NBA and NHL drafts, and the NZNBL draft this year created plenty of buzz ahead of the competition getting under way.
If an expansion team is not competitive in the first few years of its existence, it could face becoming nothing more than a development team where young players are able to cut their teeth at the top level before being lured away by a title contender.
The competition does not need a new team with no direction for the current crop to maul every round; and right now it's hard to argue there is enough talent in the game to generate a competitive 17th team.