NRL: Rugby league TV wars come full circle

This is a difficult piece for me to write as an NRL fan given I have never hidden my disdain for the establishment since the Super League wars broke out in the mid 1990’s. My reasons as for why will fill another column one day I am sure.

We are approaching the 20 year anniversary of the one and only season of Super League, the News Limited backed breakaway rugby league competition played in 1997 in parallel with the established competition run by the Australian Rugby League (ARL). The splinter competition was established were unable to secure the rights to broadcast rugby league on its fledgling pay TV operation, Foxtel. You could fill a weighty tome considering the history, manoeuvrings and aftermath of the tumultuous period of the mid to late 1990’s. No one has seriously attempted it because no matter who compiled it, there would be accusations that not all perspectives were accurately represented or accounted for. I know I certainly couldn’t.

The NRL’s recent partial media rights deal with Channel Nine for the 2018-2022 seasons effectively snubbed existing rights partner News Limited by giving Nine access to the four best NRL games every week. Ever since, it has been on the offensive through its newspaper outlets suggesting that another version of Super League could happen again. Lets be clear about one thing – it won’t.

The most ridiculous article was published over the weekend. It suggested that twelve clubs who are yet to sign participation agreements with the NRL for the 2018 season onwards are considering starting their own breakaway competition. Largely, this is in response to the media rights negotiations by NRL CEO, Dave Smith. Unsurprisingly there is a strong hint that any such breakaway would be backed by News, just as before. Needless to say, the story, along with a range of others in recent days has inflamed tensions amongst many, particularly the key personalities during the original war.

There are a number of factors why the breakaway proposition is ridiculous and unlikely to be repeated. First things first – the Super League war was fought over pay television access to rugby league. Foxtel is the only major pay television sports broadcaster in Australia, it has has a 30% penetration into Australian homes. Foxtel has recently attempted to take a 15 percent stake in struggling free to air broadcaster Channel Ten, in part to use as a vehicle for wider distribution of Foxtel content – including sport. Given involvement of the Murdoch clan however, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will take serious convincing to approve a move that falls just short of the threshold required for a full takeover bid to be launched.

Without a commercial free to air partner, Foxtel would struggle to increase advertising revenue or its subscriber base to make the proposition profitable. Without the NRL, Foxtel would lose a significant portion of its 2.2 million subscribers in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT. Channel Seven’s recent commitment to AFL rules it out in partnering Foxtel over the NRL, while Channel Nine is clearly on the front foot given its recent NRL deal.

Second, NRL CEO Dave Smith is not going anywhere. Until the announcement of the partial broadcasting deal with Nine, many in the game believed he was doing well. A Welsh banker with no rugby league background, Smith took over the top job in 2013 from the controversial David Gallop. While his lack of deep affinity with the game has been evident at times, his business skills are far superior to that of his predecessors. While I disagree with his rush to secure a deal with Nine without fully considering all available options, it was still within Smith’s prerogative to recommend it to Commissioners of the Australian Rugby League Commission.

The deal with Nine smells like a half-baked attempt to leave News Limited and Telstra out of discussions, for which those organisations are understandably annoyed. News Limited’s exit from the game’s management as part of the current media rights has left it as just another player in the field – joined now by new media players like Google and Netflix in chasing sports broadcast rights. Their actions though must be restrained given that the rights to four games, some digital properties and international rights are yet to be determined.

News Limited suggests that influential figures within the game want Smith to go because they view the negotiations to have failed. Very few of the so-called “influential figures” are prepared to be publicly attached to a push to oust Smith however – call them the faceless men. They are also unable to propose a viable candidate with a similar high level of business acumen. Possible alternatives within the game already are far too wedded to existing clubs or interests to be seriously in contention for the top job. A left field suggestion of appointing former AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou to the role of CEO is laughable and wreaks of sheer desperation from Smith’s detractors.

Third, the clubs would never back it. Their beef over signing new participation agreements stems largely from the distribution of club grants from the increased spend on media rights. There is no serious suggestion that the impasse on this matter will not be resolved. The clubs need to be patient and understand that their share of the spoils will come at the finalisation of a complete package of media rights. The NRL should call the clubs’ bluff and not blink – they will all eventually all fall into line as it is rugby league that defines their existence. Existing loyalties for many make breaking away a remote possibility at best.

Finally, the fans simply would not take another split in the game. Following the uneasy truce between the ARL and Super League leading to the formation of the NRL, it took years for the fans to return both through crowds and watching on TV. Sour grapes from News Limited will not help confidence in those areas or in actually securing Foxtel the rugby league content that it needs to maintain its subscriber base.

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