Discord: Danger and opportunity – who’s got what?

By STEVE MASCORD

JOHN F Kennedy told people in the 1960s that the Chinese symbol for crisis was made up of one stroke which means “danger” and another that denotes “opportunity”.

It’s a “wishful thinking” myth, apparently. The stroke which JFK describes as being for “opportunity” actually means something like “incipient moment” or “crucial moment when things begin to change”.

For the purposes of this column, close enough, then.

Let’s start with the danger to rugby league. The danger to rugby league everywhere is that it will run out of money. This goes for governing bodies, clubs and all the myriad businesses that exist around the edges, from jersey manufacturers to that fish and chip shop right near Craven Park in East Hull.

Players are being furloughed, although in Australia they are going to still get most of their pay. The estimated cost to the Toronto Wolfpack has been put at £10 million.

To whom, then, is this sorry situation an opportunity?

There are literally dozens of parties, actually. For instance, if there is no rugby league played this year imagine all the merchandise that will be going cheaply in a few months. Ebay and Gumtree will be awash with this stuff and some people will make money off it.

It’s clearly an opportunity for investors who want to own a club or even a league. An American investment banker called Andrew Kline is looking at openings in Australian sports for US “high net worth individuals”.

The number of rugby league media people being let go means a smaller media start-up could come in and get talent at a cut-price rate and climb up the food chain rather quickly.

Multiply these scenarios by 10, 20, 30. In times when some industries shut down, those that can continue can redraw the rules and the balance of power to their own advantage.

And chief amongst these when we talk about rugby league are the television networks.

Before the Covid-19 crisis, rugby league in both hemispheres had a year or two left on its TV deals and was (if it is honest) expecting a decrease in the rights fees received on the next contract.

In Australia, Peter V’landys was charged with squeezing as much as possible out of that new arrangement, in England it was Robert Elstone.

In both countries, the authorities have explored OTT – direct to consumer – models in preparation for the continued downward spiral of traditional broadcast television. If the networks weren’t going to need them as much, then they were going to grow their independence from the networks.

The UK’s version of this, OuRLeague, was comparatively modest but already this season had upped its game with more broadcasts and matches scheduled specifically to be shown on the app.

We all know about NRL Digital. It has been very profitable and very successful – so much so that it is still considered a threat by traditional media businesses.

Since the lockdown began, the opportunity has arisen for the television networks to claw back some of their declining fortunes because the other organisations in their ecosystems – by this I means sports bodies – are worse off than them and still rely on them enormously.

In Australia, Channel Nine and Fox Sports didn’t pay the NRL its rights instalment at the beginning of March because there was no content to show.

In Britain, interestingly, Sky did pay the Rugby Football League on time this week according to reports.

Sky and the BBC have been showing a lot of classic games in recent weeks too, a sign that the broadcasters are perhaps more interested in the sport than we previously thought they were. It’s a World Cup year next year and at the end of 2021, everything resets.

But in both hemispheres, it’s fair to say that the broadcasters are looking for an advantage out of the current situation. Nine even threw giving the clubs more power into their negotiations, a classic tactic to sew discontent straight out of the Super League 1994 playbook.

I’ll pause here and discuss how Super League and the NRL are talking about relaunching. Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington was alway going to ruffle feathers by saying teams will have to play three times a week and they’d better not complain about player welfare.

There is still very much an attitude in England that if soccer players can play so many games, so can rugby league stars. There’s a non-existent players association, private ownership by local businessmen and an overwhelming reliance on live attendances.

In Australia, the are talking about playing behind closed doors and adding gimmicks to get the broadcasters interested. Live fans are just icing on the cake in the NRL, TV extras who actually pay to come into the studio.

If we can turn on the money tap from TV again, we’ll be fine.

But back to my central point about broadcasters trying to use the situation – like thousands of other businesses – to redraw the rules in their favour.

What would assist a broadcaster in the medium term in return for helping a sport in the short term is better commercial conditions on the next TV deal – less competition (ideally signing without a rival even getting a look-in) and a lower cost.

The challenge our administrators have now is to stand up to them, to find alternative sources of revenue, to still come out of this with some bargaining power and not just take the moolah on offer to pay today’s bills.

It’s one thing to be a slave. It’s another to ask your master for a favour and owe him even more than your life.


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