The NRL marches on


When the Australian Football League (AFL) shuttered it’s doors, eyes immediately turned to the National Rutby League (NRL). Would the NRL follow suit?

The response from Peter V’Landys has so far been fixated with a certitude that does not match the times. The NRL will continue on, unless the government tells them otherwise. The argument is that the NRL isn’t subject to the travel restrictions and isn’t impacted by the closing borders of Western Australia and South Australia. The game may up sticks and move to Queensland, as reported by Travis Meyn and Peter Badel in The Courier Mail on Sunday night. In the meantime the NRL will press on.

The economic imperative here is clear. I’m sure V’Landys would like to make a social case for rugby league keeping the light on in the dark times, but the most important matter for the survival of the game is the television deal. According to Meyn and Badel, the NRL estimates it will lose if it abandons the season will bankrupt the game – close to $500 million. That seems an exaggeration. The deal was $1.8 billion over five years, or $360 million a year. Given that we’re through two rounds, that number is already closer to $350 million. I’ve no idea if that matters but facts remain important, even in these times.

The money they get from Fox and Channel 9 is the prime source of income for the game, and has ensured its success and viability. When V’Landys was talking about not being in a position to whether an elongated suspension of the NRL, this is what he was worried about. If the TV money goes, so might the competition. According to Gerard Condon aka @readingtheplay on twitter, the next time the NRL gets money from the TV companies is April 1, or pretty much the end of round three. That could be the goal – hang on, get that payment, and then accept the inevitable. I can’t help but wonder if the NRL feels they’re better placed legally if the government makes the decision they aren’t willing to.

The television companies are also desperate to keep the games going. Foxtel has always relied on sport to keep them profitable and they’ve never been scared to make sure rugby league bends to meet that need. Shit, they nearly killed the game in the super league war in order to make sure they were the pay TV provider of the game. Now, when they’ve already been leaking subscribers like Bryce Cartwright leaks points, a potential shut down of the NRL leaves them with literally no argument for people staying connected. You can feel the desperation in the sudden and random cross-promotion of films on Fox League’s coverage this weekend.

Then there’s a whole ecosystem of ex-players who’s livelihoods depend of the game, wondering if they’ll be able to weather the storm. V’Landys would be feeling pressure from every talking head keen to see the game going. Paul Kent intimating that V’Landy’s leadership was Churchillian as he did in an article this weekend is a prime example of the exertion of pressure on V’Landy’s to keep everyone employed.

The decision for V’Landys is tough and to be honest I’m sympathetic. His responsibility is primarily to keep the game running, to keep people in jobs and grow the game. We’ve been critical of his strategy for doing this in these pages, but he’s been clear that every round the league can get through before a shut-down the better for the economic position of the game.

However doing this risks the health of the players. For a playing group that already sacrifices their bodies, we are asking them to risks not just their own health, but potentially that of their families and friends. This becomes a big ask when you say ‘for what’. I appreciate that efforts are being made – private planes, a biosecurity expert and a range of other efforts to manage the risk, but I can’t say I’m completely comfortable, even though I barely missed a moment of footy this weekend.

It’s also a problem for the game if they intend on coming out the other side of this pandemic. I’m not an epidemiologist but the league will need players as much as money to be viable, and they need them to be healthy in the long term.

So far only Cameron Smith has explicitly expressed concern, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were more players worried about the situation. After literally every other major competition in the world has made the decision to protect their players, it’s not hard not to see players wondering. However, this is speculation, and the commitment of the New Zealand Warriors to staying in operation for the ongoing existence of games suggests the players are willing to scarfice to keep the rounds rolling.

Let’s be clear. There is no good decision here. What’s more important, jobs or health? How much health can you sacrifice to keep jobs? When does the threat to life become enough to justify jobs? I don’t know the answers to these questions. Part of me thinks we shouldn’t be wrestling with these questions. The rights of people like you and me to be safe at work extend to rugby league players too. They shouldn’t have to wonder if them playing a game of footy will be a risk to the people they love. They should be able to go home to their families at what is an unprecedented time in the world’s history. I can’t imagine not being able to hold your partner or your children as the world you love shakes like a snow globe.

All this will likely be overwhelmed by events. A decision to move to Queensland requires logistical work and time that may not exist – but it may be viable. Who knows at this stage? A decision to stay in status quo will be overwhelmed by the virus. It’s a genuinely horrifying thought, but rugby league is on borrowed time for 2020. All we have now is uncertainty.

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