Gary Larson says goodbye to the fans after the Bears' last NRL home game at North Sydney Oval. Picture: Virginia Young
Gary Larson says goodbye to the fans after the Bears' last NRL home game at North Sydney Oval. Picture: Virginia Young

North Sydney Bears set to wake from NRL hibernation

THE North Sydney Bears believe realistically they could be back in the NRL in 2024.

But the fun for their long-suffering fans would begin a year earlier, when the club hopes they will be one of 12 teams competing for promotion under a new two-tier format.

The new TV rights deal will start with the 2023 season, and by then Bears CEO David Perry hopes the NRL and state bodies, in co-operation with the game's broadcasting partners, will be further aligned and have agreed to a relegation model similar to what the English Super League employs.

Perry - who was appointed to the role in September - envisages two 12-team competitions, with the bottom two sides from the first-grade competition being demoted and replaced by the top two place-getters from the second-grade.

And the Bears are getting their ducks in a row to ensure they're in the box seat to take advantage if it comes to fruition.

New North Sydney Bears CEO David Perry is confident he can help guide the club back to the NRL.
New North Sydney Bears CEO David Perry is confident he can help guide the club back to the NRL.

The former Manly Sea Eagles boss believes the two-tier system needs to be discussed in the interest of the game's survival and growth in this highly competitive sporting landscape.

He stresses the current system is flawed and as a result the game is plateauing.

There are clubs, he continues, that aren't sustainable in their current state, and the Bears boasting a catchment from the burgeoning North Sydney business district to Lake Munmorah on the Central Coast clearly cover a key market for the game's growth.

"I think the relegation system would be an important step for the game," Perry said.

"You need 12 and 12, so 24 key markets, and stricter criteria about those clubs around their funding model which means all of the 24 may not fit the top tier criteria, it may only be 16-18 franchises that make the cut, their catchment areas, their population, and their commercial growth.

"Because currently I believe a lot of clubs haven't been accountable as much as they should have. They've been too reliant on funding from the NRL and haven't been measurable enough.

"There's no reason why a club that's existed for 70 or 80 years, or 40 or 50 years, should have the right to have their brand stay lonesome on their own if they're not performing at the levels required across the board, they're not meeting the standards and criteria that the game expects or needs to generate the right amount of funding to survive.

Former North Sydney Bears star Greg Florimo has been a key player in the bid for a return to the top flight.
Former North Sydney Bears star Greg Florimo has been a key player in the bid for a return to the top flight.

"The relegation system for mine, and those people in the game that have looked at it, is clearly an opportunity for the NRL to spread its wings further in key markets and have those second tier clubs feel more engaged because they are critical and they're the pathway for the game's future success."

That's not to say the Bears won't strike before that - Perry is a savvy operator and the leadership team doesn't have the blinkers on.

But he says the two-tier system is the most likely pathway back to the top-flight, because it's also the most logical next step for the game to re-engage all fans by giving their teams hope of making the top tier competition.

"Imagine knowing the additional support the Bears would get in the second tier competition if there was hope the following season they could be included based on field performance," he points out.

"It would be great for the game and fans, and would ensure the top tier clubs would not only have to perform on the field but meet certain standards off it."

The foundation club spent years establishing a presence on the Central Coast and preparing a rebranded bid when talk of expansion heated up under former CEO David Gallop.

When that administration decided the time wasn't right for expansion they waited for another opportunity.

That came when the NRL put the Gold Coast Titans licence up for sale, but ultimately they didn't go through with the proposal as it just wasn't suitable.

Those attempts at readmission don't seem to be lost causes now.

Jason Taylor has been appointed coach at the Bears. Picture: Brett Costello
Jason Taylor has been appointed coach at the Bears. Picture: Brett Costello

The Bears brand garnered huge local support on the Central Coast from that first bid, and then they attracted a powerful portfolio of private investors when preparing to take over the Gold Coast franchise.

"We're not emotionally caught up in this, we love the Bears but we have a business model which is suitable for the game when the time's right," he said.

"The Bears already have more than 200,000 avid fans. As Billy Moore once said, there are 200,000-odd customers ready to be re-engaged, what business doesn't want to re-engage those?

"So we'd be ready now if an opportunity presented itself and we're just waiting to get that tap, but if that means preparing for the two-tier model then we'll have a model the NRL won't be able to ignore."

While the dialogue continues, the Bears are focused on making sure the on-field performances from the Intrust Super Cup down to the under 16s are worthy of the fans' support while also being more active in the community to ensure the club is seen.

And they've clearly made important strides already, aligning themselves with the Sydney Roosters and unveiling Jason Taylor as the new head coach with five pathway teams and a junior league base to underpin their massive population catchment.