Australian Rugby
Evans looks to create the perfect storm
Tom Hamilton in Melbourne
June 26, 2013
Mark Evans (right) sits alongside former Melbourne Storm CEO Ron Gauci © Getty Images

When Mark Evans left his post as chief executive of Harlequins during the 2010-11 season, he had been through the mill and back with the Aviva Premiership side. He had helped them through the early days of professionalism, had overseen their spell out of the top flight when they were relegated, and then guided them through one of the toughest pages in their history, 'Bloodgate'.

After walking through the Stoop's doors for the final time, he had left them on a firm footing with the foundations laid that saw them win the Premiership title in 2012. For Evans, life after Quins saw him establish his own consultancy business focusing on rugby union, league and cricket. That seemed to be Evans set.

But sport moves quickly.

On May 21, 2013, Evans was unveiled as Melbourne Storm's new CEO on the day a new consortium replaced News International as the owners of the current NRL champions. There are some basic similarities with what he faced when he first arrived at Harlequins: in London, soccer is dominant; in Melbourne it is AFL that is a constant feature on the Herald Sun's back pages.

But that is where the similarities end. Evans, just four weeks into his time with the Storm, has arrived at a club with a fantastic infrastructure. When you walk around their home stadium, AAMI Park, which housed the Rebels' game against the British & Irish Lions on Tuesday night, you are struck by just how impressive their set-up is. Their gym is state-of-the-art, and for the Storm it seems the sky's the limit.

It was all very different three years ago when they were stripped of two titles and fined a record AUS$1.68m for salary-cap irregularities. But now in the midst of the 2012-13 season, Evans has taken charge of the reigning NRL champions with a team that includes superstars Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk. It is all a far cry from when he first took up a post with Harlequins.

"There are a few similarities but there are a lot of differences," Evans told ESPNscrum. "Harlequins were much less developed when I arrived. Back in 2000, the team was pretty ordinary, the stadium was about 7000, season tickets were under a thousand, the training ground was woeful, and they were losing money. They were a much less developed entity than here. The stadium is fantastic, the team is top class, and the training ground is outstanding. Last year the crowd was around 12,000; this year it's just over 16,000. It's a different beast.

"But the markets aren't dissimilar. Football was dominant in London and here AFL is massive. But sport's massive. The whole place of sport in Melbourne culture is extraordinary. AFL is woven into the fabric of the place. Everyone here has an AFL team. But there are two Big Bash cricket franchises, a successful netball side, there are the Rebels, there are two soccer teams - the Victory get over 20,000 every week - there's the Storm.

Melbourne Storm CEO Mark Evans surveys his new surroundings, AAMI Park, Melbourne, May 21, 2013
Surveying the scene at the AAMI Park © Getty Images

"There are four million people, so in that sense it's similar in the sense that one sport is a lot bigger than others. But did we think that there was room for a successful rugby club in south-west London? Yes we did. Did we think there's room, and in some sense it's already successful, for the Storm? Yes."

While AFL is dominant in Melbourne - nine of the 18 teams in the top league are based there - in places like Brisbane and Sydney, rugby league is king. A main factor in the NRL's increased exposure within in Australia is that some games are on free-to-air television.

For those who opt to pay extra for Fox Sports they get the luxury of being able to watch Super Rugby and more NRL matches, but as a sign of the 13-man code's popularity in the country, Fox and Nine Network have just committed to a five-year billion dollar deal to continue broadcasting league. While, in Evans' words, union's unique selling point is its international competition, for AFL and NRL the appeal is much more localised.

"It's very competitive, you have to make yourself different to the other codes," Evans says of the challenge he faces in establishing the Storm within Victoria. "But it's exciting. Other than London, Melbourne is as big as Paris.

"Is it saturated? There's not much sign of it. They bring the Bledisloe here and it draws huge crowds, and you bring the State of Origin here and it does well. It is made easier as league is free to air. 500,000 people watched State of Origin in Melbourne last week and that's a huge increase. When the Storm won the Premiership, over a million people watched the ceremony; that's huge.

"But it's a big town here. People like more than one sport and with soccer being a summer sport then there will be a lot of people who will have a season pass here and maybe an AFL team who may be their first love or it might be a different way round."

Evans comes face-to-face with Billy Slater © Getty Images

The Storm host Brisbane Broncos next Friday, and they are hoping to get a crowd of around 22,000. This will be an impressive attendance for them but it pales in comparison to Essendon's recent win over Carlton which saw 82,639 punters flock through the gates of the MCG.

Carbon copies of 'The Big Game', which Evans brought to Harlequins, are still a way off, but increasing attendance and membership numbers are still at the forefront of what he wants to achieve. Melbourne sport revolves around membership; it is an entity similar to Barcelona's model, but a rarity in the UK.

"Those in Melbourne say 'are you a member?'. It's broader than just being a season ticket holder. A lot of the clubs here are member owned; we aren't, but a lot of them are. It's a membership model. And it's been embraced by the NRL; it's a big Australian thing of 'how many members have you got?'."

Matters like membership, finding a niche amongst the other codes and growing attendances are all part of Evans' remit. It is early days and his final words to me as I left the Storm's offices emphasised he is still learning more about league and Melbourne by the day, but it is a challenge he is relishing.

"They call me a union-tragic. And I am, that's my background. But you are fighting for your life against other strong codes and we don't really have that in the UK. It's a really challenging, competitive but interesting market, and I'm very lucky to have fallen into it. It's fascinating."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.

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