Discord: Is Australian rugby league headed for another rebellion?

By STEVE MASCORD

“I KEEP thinking this is a very interesting crescendo to your Super League War book. Because maybe we’re about to have another one…”

I received this message from a good friend on Facebook this morning, in reference to a book I am working on about 1997, the only year we had twin competitions in Australia. Her point was one i have already been pondering for days.

We talk about the Rugby League Family in times like these and it is true there are nice stories about fans, administrators, coaches and players looking after each other during the current global crisis.

But in Australia we have more of a Rugby League Mafia, a Rugby League Razor Gang.

It’s one thing for an electronics retailer like Gerry Harvey to say the pandemic is good for business because everyone is staying home.  It’s quite another, surely,  to try to use the pandemic to improve business and swing commercial fortunes in your favour.

The only conclusion I can garner from stories by colleagues Chris Barrett and Michael Chammas last week about the NRL’s negotiations with Channel Nine is that the clubs have done just that.

In case you missed it, not only would Channel Nine not pay the NRL the next instalment of their TV rights money – because no games are being played – but they wanted a new, extended deal in which the clubs had more power.

The clubs have more power? That couldn’t come from nowhere. Someone has been in someone’s ear about kicking someone (the NRL) fair in the gonads when they are down.

Sure enough, soon after came another story in which it was revealed the Premier League’s corporate structure had been lusted over by the clubs and that they saw this as a good opportunity to push these changes through.

A media organisation wooing rugby league clubs with the promise of more power? Hmm. where have we heard this before?

There was all the usual guff about the Premier League keeping all the money and only having 140 employees, with the usual crucial omission of the plain fact the Premier League doesn’t run soccer in England. It just runs one competition.

The Football Association, which does run soccer in England just as the ARLC runs rugby league in Australia, has 728 employees.

It is classic Australian rugby league culture – particularly from clubs, who John Quayle once famously said were “loyal to the ARL the way a cow is loyal to hay” – smell blood and go in for the kill.

You know the issues here well enough: an independent governing body is there to put the game first, clubs put themselves first. If you give all the TV money to the clubs, there’s nowhere for their players to come from.

But the NRL are not the clear-cut goodies here. This sad imbroglio is complicated by the NRL’s own disastrous decision in 2017 to liquidate its $54.6 million futures fund.

It gets $2 billion in TV rights but will be broke by October, apparently. What looked seven days ago to be be a professional, forward-thinking sports league has finished the week instead appearing bloated and hubristic. And – as the clubs and networks can smell – vulnerable.

On one hand, before this health crisis, free-to-air television networks seemed like having a steeply declining influence at League Central due to their own falling fortunes and slimming wallets and therefore it should only be necessary to stand up to them one more time.

The NRL has its own profitable digital operation and you can imagine that if it started selling the sport directly to customers tomorrow, there would be a huge take-up. The Watch NRL app, available for overseas fans, is a dry run for this.

But on the other hand, Nine appears to have jumped into bed with the clubs who are only interested in money. Clubs want to cut out the middle man until they need the middle man to bail them out of trouble. It has always been thus.

Now, the last time I looked the NRL had the right to set up 16 teams, call them the same name as the existing 16 teams, have them play in the same colours and exclude all 16 administrations. That was the case after the Super League War, maybe it’s changed.

But the other complication is the arrival of ARLC chairman Peter V’landys. It’s possible that as he executes the upcoming belt tightening, he may chose to dramatically scale back its digital operation (which was anticipated as soon as he took the job, due to his close relationship with News Ltd).

First the future fund goes down the gurgler, then the actual future. Suddenly the game is bombed back to, if not the dark ages, the Rex Mossop ages: reliant on TV money with clubs holding sway who have no use for expansion or international competition.

The clubs and at least one network have formed an unholy alliance to topple a teetering administration at head office. This could get ugly.

We’ve already seen something similar in Britain, where Super League broke away from the Rugby Football League and has said if the TV rights money drops below a certain level in the new TV deal, the lower division sides will get nothing.

Meanwhile, the RFL is so broke it asked the Challenge Cup holders to insure them against the possibility they make the final again, because a bad crowd would send the governing body broke.

Can it really be argued any of this is in the interests of the game?

Twenty-four years ago, Quayle found himself double-crossed by the new clubs he’d invited into the league and then disrespected and almost robbed blind by the old ones he’d fought to keep afloat.

He said at the time: “The scruples that have been lost have shattered me more more than anything.

“So many of the challenges to the game came from within.”

Against the background of a social and economic wasteland, rugby league’s eternal dance between naked greed and visceral beauty – that has always held it back – continues unabated.

 

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