Rugby League is a wonderful game too often run by people who range from being benignly incompetent to outright destructive.
Too often these are small minded people fascinated with the flickering light of nostalgia. That the game has only survived is rarely through their doing, but rather because of the outright devotion of fans, and the unquestionable talent of the players.
We are lucky the game has remained strong because a reasonable man might think Peter V’Landys wants to kill it. This might be surprising to you given he’s only been Chairman of the Australian Rugby League Commission for a matter of months, but already he’s described a platform that will at best see Rugby League die the elongated death of sports like boxing.
Peter mistakenly believes standing still is the best way forward. He wants to constrain the growth of a game in a sporting environment where the fragmentation of culture means the causal market available will continue to shrink. Nowhere is this more noteworthy than his belief that there is no need for a team in Perth. I’ve heard bullshit in my life, but rarely does it stink so brazenly.
His reasoning is spurious at best.
V’Landys erroneously thinks there is no demand for a team in the West. This isn’t reflected in the more than 20 thousand people that have turned out for NRL games held there, nor the 50 thousand that turned out for State of Origin. It ignores that there has been significant demographic shift in recent years, with many people moving from the east coast of Australia with the mining boom, and similarly from the north of England. According to the 2016 census there is now around 60 thousand Englishmen living in Perth. I’m not suggesting they’re all rugby league fans, but if you don’t see them as people that can be brought over to league then you’re not up to the job of selling the game.
All this pales next to the fact that some of Australia’s biggest corporations currently reside in Western Australia, desperate to put money into some mechanism that will allow them to not be hated by a country that can sometimes be ambivalent about their contributions to our common wealth. Right now they fight to give their money to the Eagles and the
Denver Broncos Dockers.
A smart administrator would see this as an opportunity. Old mate Pete sees it as an imposition on standard operations. He’d seems happier to recreate the dying club rugby union scene than to take the game properly national.
V’Landys also thinks five hours is too far to go for professional sportsmen. It must be interesting for members of literally every other national sporting competition in Australia to hear that. As Steve Mascord pointed out in the Roar, it also stands in opposition to the experience of national sports in the USA, and around the world. It is also hilarious given the trip to Townsville, Christchurch, Darwin, or some regional towns can push that number. The Raiders more than once were forced to have elongated days of travel due to the problems caused by the notorious morning fog of Canberra winters.
If Peter V’Landys genuinely cared about the welfare of players he’d be doing everything he can to get more dollars in the next television rights deal. A great way to do that would be to expand the number of games in prime time. There’s already games on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night in prime time. A Sunday evening game has always failed because people have families and jobs, and being out until 9pm on a Sunday night means attendance is almost always poor. A team in Perth shortcuts this issue by allowing a Sunday evening game to be shown in prime time on the east coast while being relatively family friendly for attendees on the west.
Not happy to be only backwards in his geographic strategy, V’Landys has also decided that the digitalisation of the game has to stop. He sees the NRL scaling back it’s streaming presence.
It’s such a stunningly dumb idea it feels like cheating. In a world where everyone below the age of the dinosaurs (so younger than Phil Gould) is consciously decoupling from terrestrial television, it’s befuddling that you would seek to reduce your ability to maximise the eyeballs on your game.
The NRL would be smart to invest as much money as possible in its digital platforms. The most successful streaming platforms (financially and strategically) are the ones that own their own content (think Netflix and Disney+). If the NRL were to put money into its digital platform, it could put itself in a position where it was no longer reliant on the support of the dying Foxtel and the inept Channel 9 to reach its market. Think of how important League Pass is to the NBA. This is how the NRL should be thinking about its digital platforms.
I’m not sure what V’Landy’s strategy is here. Is this some weird shout out to Fox/Kayo to show you’re not coming for their turf? I would have thought the best way to generate some urgency from Fox/Kayo in the lead up to the next rights deal would be to prove you don’t need them, rather than have to stand there, cap in hand, with no other viable digital alternative other than hoping Fox will save you.
Instead of looking forward, V’Landys has instead focused on the small minded complaints of the idiotic dinosaurs currently driving opinion at leading papers and broadcasters. No better is this demonstrated than his view that there should only be one referee. This is a favourite of people whose memories of the game don’t actually match the reality. One referee is often lorded as some sort of benefit to the ‘flow’ and consistency of the game.
These views are all reliant on a rose-coloured view of the past. Refereeing wasn’t better ‘back in the day’. People complained just as much, if not more. Referees made more errors, and there were more howlers than there are today. A second referee, like the video referee, and in-goal judges before them, have been critical in improving the pace and quality of decisions (not to mention referee professionalism).
What is clear is that in today’s game, one referee would mean that rucks would slow to snail’s pace (as we saw in the recent international series that operated under a single referee). If you’re worried about flow, watch the Storm and the Roosters make rucks feel stuck in mud. They’ve already benefited from the slower rucks that came from the end of the 2018 crackdown – also caused by the bleating from the dying media . They’ll benefit from another change to loosen the ability of the refs to monitor what happens there, and a shift to one referee would do just that.
But again it’s reflective of a provincial and shortsighted mindset. In pursuit of a fabled world that never existed, V’Landys has sought to establish his reign as one that values the feelpinions of dilapidated dinosaurs, and ignores the practical realities of the world in which we exist, and the opportunities it creates. He is the living, breathing manifestation of the ok boomer meme, and rugby league will suffer for it.
Even if this approach is just a strategy to win over people like Buzz Rothfield and Phil Gould in an attempt to get them to engage with rugby league in a useful, productive way, it’s a fools errand. These people have minds that have calcified, belligerent in their belief that ‘things were better’ in some magical past that is as real as your favourite festive gift-giver.
Rugby league could be better than this. V’Landys needs to find a way to make the game more appealing to television without damaging its integrity. An expansion team in Perth (and a second in New Zealand) should be top of considerations. The digital side of the game needs to be heavily invested in; its a pathway to self-sufficiency for the game that hasn’t existed in years. And rather than focus on referees – which are pertinently not broken – he needs to worry about real issues like concussion and the impact of league on players’ brains. That might actually end the game before we know it, and the ARLC should be leading the world in researching that.
Rugby league needs to be better than this. It seems Peter V’Landys has nailed his colours to the mast. He has chosen to be yet another in the line of incompetent fools. Let’s hope he doesn’t kill the game.