The race to claim the NRL's 17th license almost took a dramatic turn last week, when two rivals briefly considered putting aside their differences to unite against the third player in the highly anticipated showdown. But just as the juicy prospect of a powerhouse merger had pundits up and down the east coast reconsidering their bid favourites, it abruptly fell over. It seems the Brisbane Jets and the Firehawks bid teams, while open to having some chats around the possibilities, ultimately couldn't get on the same page.
So what unfolded behind closed doors to prompt the various powerbrokers to scrap the idea, mere days after enthusiastically announcing it?
"Not quite war and peace, but definitely some feedback," Brisbane Jets CEO Nick Livermore tells ESPN, hinting at some robust back and forth on the proposal's finer points. He's well placed to assess such things, having earlier this year presided over a successful merger between the former Brisbane Bombers and Ipswich Jets bids.
"There are so many complications, individual personalities and varying agendas and goals - it's just a complex process."
On August 29, the Jets and Firehawks announced plans to begin talks and 'consider the benefits associated' with a merger that would double the offering being tabled against the asset rich Redcliffe Dolphins.
Just one day later, reports began to emerge that talks had stalled. The Jets and Firehawks would be staying the course with their respective bids, rather than pooling resources. Despite all the hype, the idea had swiftly been canned. What remained unclear was whether it was a mutual decision, and indeed who had made the final call. At first, pulling at the threads around the reasoning produced some pretty docile results.
"The two parties had fundamental differences in the ownership model," Firehawks chair Steven Bullow confirmed via an impressively vague media release on August 31.
"'The Firehawks have submitted a very good bid to the ARLC Committee.'"
Hints of differences, but who pulled the trigger to kill the idea, and what about the ownership model was in dispute? Direct follow ups with the Brisbane (Easts) Tigers backed Firehawks produced an additional series of flat bats, with bid consultancy firm Rich Digital CEO Brent Richardson reluctant to offer further insights.
"In terms of the questions you have outlined I have been instructed by the team to point you towards our media release based on our latest merger stance,'" Richardson said when probed on the matter, implying the August 31 media release was the best source of information in a situation where the Firehawks appeared to be united in non-disclosure.
As the boss of the bids marketing and commercial approach, it was clear Richardson had deemed the finer points not worth reflecting on, let alone advertising. This provided the first proper hint that the merger rejection came from the Firehawks, and any subsequent discussion was simply not worth their time.
To be fair, the much vaunted August 31 media release did indeed summarise the Firehawks position, outlining the primary concerns of bid backers the Easts Tigers. To paraphrase;
a) a Jets merger would fail to serve the Tigers carefully cultivated pool of 40 thousand members.
b) they already have a thriving club base, and a slew of existing/planned infrastructure to house NRL expansion.
c) the Firehawks are only interested in growing both participation and viewership of the game.
Decent enough reasons, but surely the growth and participation agenda is at least one ambition shared by the Jets. One couldn't help but wonder; was there more to the story? Something not being shared that was scandalous enough to torpedo what appeared a pretty compelling merger opportunity?
Thankfully, the Jets, through Livermore, are far more willing to share some insights, beginning with the origins of the now defunct superbid. It all began when Shane Richardson reached out to an old friend, in the form of Scott Sattler.
"The guys have been connected since Scott was at Penrith," Livermore says.
"They opened the discussion, and we offered a 50-50 partnership with the Firehawks- which wasn't able to be reached."
Richardson (Former South Sydney football GM, father of Brent and co-founder of Rich Digital) represents the interests of the Firehawks, while Sattler is the GM of rugby league for the Jets. According to Livermore, it was a matter of assessing which footprint would prove better suited to tackling the challenge from the Dolphins.
"Shane has experience beyond most people in the game and recognises where their (Firehawks) growth corridor lies. At this stage we have parked discussions given the importance of the Western (Jets) corridor and having a team based in the region."
A friendly reach-out ultimately leading to nothing, based on an east and west divide, and differences over where the merger would hang its hat. In current Intrust Super Cup terms, Firehawks are focused on the Easts Tigers patch of turf, while the Brisbane Jets are firmly committed to the corridor currently occupied by Ipswich. Thankfully for non-Queensland based fans, Livermore offers a Sydney based geographic comparison to explain the situation.
"The team needs to be based West of Brisbane," he says.
"(We can't have) the equivalent of the Sydney Roosters trying to grow and manage the game in Penrith. We have stated for a long period of time that it is the heartland of growth through West Brisbane, Ipswich and Toowoomba."
The Firehawks clearly disagree on that point, and Livermore is quick to praise the business merits of his rivals, while leaving the proverbial ball firmly in their court.
"They have an incredible footprint as the former Easts Tigers and successful backing," he says.
"So it's an opportunity to move forward on if we can reach a 50-50 partnership, but ultimately we've left them with this opportunity."
Mystery solved. While it was Firehawks who initially reached out, the Jets made a partnership offer based on occupying their proposed patch of turf. This was rejected, but the Jets- possibly realising it represents their best chance, remain keen, albeit with no current intention to compromise on the whole patch of turf situation.
As for the NRL itself, Livermore concedes a degree of frustration with the delays in the bid process, and a lack of clarity of when- if successful- the Jets would be entering the league.
"Any delay in growing the game isn't good for participation, viewership and attendance," he says.
The recent final pitch meetings, held via video link with NRL hierarchy, allowed the bids to take advantage of some rare face time with the governing body. Details of the Jets pitch offer some further clarity on why the superbid idea went cold, with Livermore admitting the opportunity presented a stark reminder of the primary criteria the three bids need to tick off on to keep the big bosses happy down south.
"Peter (Vlandys) understands what it is the Brisbane Jets can bring to the game," Livermore says. "We recognise that financial sustainability is paramount to the process."
At this point, the reality is topics such as the various corridors resided in and represented- while crucial- are simply not at the top of the NRL's checklist. "We aren't backed by Leagues clubs, nor do we want to be - what we had from Peter is an hour and a half discussion for the first time in a decade," Livermore continues.
"We understand what we need to do to assure the west of Brisbane and the greater region of South-East Queensland for 2023/24 and into the long-term future."
Brent Richardson and co have also said the Firehawks remain open to further talks, but are clearly confident they have enough clout behind their own solo bid, and don't have to compromise to survive. Simply put, the Firehawks give the impression they simply don't need what the Jets bring to the table, and the same isn't true in reverse. It's now difficult to see that changing, unless the Jets agree to some geographical reconsiderations. Going back to that Firehawks media release from August 31:
"We are financially strong, our marketing plan will bring new fans and sponsors to our game, we have a very good pathways and participation model, and an excellent business plan."
So does the fall of the superbid, and the NRL's primary desire for financial security, leave the cashed up and super resourced Dolphins in the box seat?
"We're incredibly pleased to have successfully presented our case to the ARLC," enthuses Dolphins bid chief Terry Reader.
"(We're) delighted with the movement towards hopefully announcing a successful party."
Reader's tone is more reflective of someone who feels they've aced a job interview, and not someone who bombed out. After watching the bulk of Redcliffe's $100 million asset stockpile being showcased on the national stage on a near weekly basis since July, on account of the NRL's Queensland relocation, he exudes a confidence which is backed by his degree of interest (zero) in the failed merger between the Jets and Firehawks.
"The Dolphins are not concerned with the decisions of other bids," Reader says, calmly reminding ESPN that the Dolphins have never felt compelled to change what they're offering.
"We have maintained a professional and consistent bid from day one and have respected the desired process. The Dolphins are taking nothing for granted, (but) we are confident our pitch provides the necessary stability and confidence for the NRL."
Over to you, Mr V'landys.