Dire straits: Cowboys facing financial ruin
The North Queensland Cowboys - one of the NRL's proudest clubs - is fighting for survival.
A Sunday Mail special investigation can reveal the Cowboys require $30 million in urgent funding to build a new headquarters that will represent the final plank in their move to a state-of-the-art stadium in Townsville next season.
Cowboys chairman Laurence Lancini is lobbying the highest levels of government, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in a desperate bid to secure the multimillion-dollar lifeline that will guarantee the club's long-term future.
"We need help," Lancini said.
"We've got nothing so far. Zero. We need to pick up $30 million in government funding.
"Back in 2002, we were a few days away from closing the doors to this club.
"We were just about broke … it can't happen again."
The Cowboys last week unveiled plans to construct a Community, Training and High Performance Centre, which will be situated adjacent to the opulent $250 million North Queensland Stadium that will be operational for round one of the 2020 NRL season.
But the Cowboys are facing a crippling financial scenario. Construction of the new training facility will cost $45 million. Lancini says the club can afford to contribute $15m, but without state and federal government aid, the project will not get off the ground.
Time is ticking. Just 12 months out from the Cowboys' first home game of 2020, they have not received a cent to build the training base that will go hand-in-hand with their presence at North Queensland Stadium.
"We've got nothing so far. Zero," Lancini said.
That presents a major headache for the region's flagship sporting team. With their current home ground, 1300 Smiles Stadium, to be demolished next year, the Cowboys must vacate their increasingly antiquated training set-up within 18 months to establish a long-term footprint in Townsville's CBD.
In the short-term, the NRL's annual $13 million grant to each of the 16 clubs, which exceeds the current $9.6m salary cap, will give the Cowboys a financial buffer.
But Lancini fears that without a new home, the Cowboys will be left on death row as local juniors flee the region in search of better opportunities at other NRL rivals.
In the past three years, four NRL rivals - the Broncos, Newcastle, Penrith and South Sydney - have either built or begun work on High Performance Centres costing at least $20 million.
The state and federal governments committed more than $15 million to the Broncos' $27.2m Clive Berghofer Centre, which was opened last year - underlining the professional chasm between the Cowboys and their Queensland archrivals.
"The Broncos have a wonderful facility, by comparison we are in the backblocks," Lancini said.
"If we don't get the help we need, our survival is under threat. That's not an overstatement, that's a fact.
"Think about this. North Queensland breeds a lot of talented young players but if we don't give them the facilities to make them bigger and better NRL players, they will not choose our club.
"Our best local products will go to places like the Broncos or Penrith.
"If we don't keep up with the modern facilities in the current age, we will go downhill. It would have a major impact on our roster, our club and our finances.
"If we can't compete, there is no doubt it will have significant effects on the viability of the Cowboys.
"There is no question."
Lancini stressed the proposed facility is not strictly for Cowboys use. The 17,000-square metre site will be a multipurpose community asset housing medical, sports science, research and rehabilitation services involving James Cook University and the Mater Hospital.
As part of a Memorandum of Understanding, the Cowboys will support women's sport, including the Townsville Fire, and preside over an indigenous arm involving training, education and charity work.
Keen to expedite funding for immediate construction work, Lancini - one of Australia's most successful property tycoons - has reached out to the Prime Minister.
"We need help from governments to chip in and help us," he said.
"This facility would be for the people of north Queensland, not just the Cowboys. We can fund part of it, but we simply can't afford it all ourselves.
"I've met with both sides of government. At this stage they are listening. We are sending information to them. The Prime Minister and Opposition Leader know all about it.
"There's been no commitment from them to date but we're hoping for a commitment from both sides on the table very soon."
The Cowboys have already received generous support. The state and federal governments provided $240 million collectively to build the Cowboys' shiny new jewel, North Queensland Stadium, in the wake of their famous 2015 premiership victory.
Queensland Rugby League board member Ben Ikin, a former Cowboys board appointment, urged government officials to "finish the job".
"The Broncos have had huge government support, including upgrades to Suncorp Stadium," Ikin said.
"It's one thing to have a venue you can play out of, but it's equally important to give an organisation the resources it needs to inspire an entire region with a cutting-edge work environment.
"For the Cowboys to have continued success, it's important they offer best practice and to do that they need the right facilities.
"The Cowboys are striving to be industry leaders. The government needs to recognise the Cowboys are not just an NRL club - they are so much more than that up there.
"When young men decide whether to play for the Cowboys or Broncos or a Sydney club, the decision is largely influenced by the facilities a club can provide.
"If the Cowboys want to inspire their local talent to stay, they have to keep pace with the rest of Australian sport."