I had a lecturer in first year history that used to say that the pendulum always swings back. For every revolution, for every change for the better, there’s always a reaction. It’s why progress always feels like two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes it’s worse than that.
Rugby league had quietly spent the past few years establishing itself as a profitable, almost progressive, competitor to AFL. Record TV rights were invested to develop the non-broadcast revenue of the game, a long-term plan for the transition to streaming was established, positions were taken to build an inclusive game that recognised the value in all of its community, and rugby league was profiting and growing for the first time. Decisions like the “no-fault stand-down” rule were developed with strategic thought and consultation, if not universal support. It was borderline professional.
Within months of his ascension to power, new Commissioner Peter V’Landys has turned that on its head. He came to the job with a clear idea of what he saw as rugby league paradise, identifying an end to ideas of expansion to new markets, a move to one referee and icing the NRL’s sole asset, the digital platform (we wrote about it here). Backed by a comically compliant media, he has taken advantage of the Coronavirus crisis to re-imagine the NRL in this image. The pendulum swung forward for but a brief moment, and V’Landys has sent it swinging right back.
The first way he’s doing this is by ending the ‘big’ NRL HQ. One of the greatest lies of recent months has been that rugby league has “wasted” its recent revenue surge coming from the current broadcasting deal. In reality the NRL’s administration costs have largely been normal for an organisation its size (4 per cent of revenue) a fact that the ALRC (and V’Landys) acknowledged in December last year when they awarded Todd Greenberg a bonus for the league’s “outstanding” financial performance in 2019. The league had been spending more money, but it was resulting in it making more (I’m fairly certain that’s how business works). NRL HQ had taken on a bigger role in building the game. It was subsidising development of players. It was building a competition for women. It was building a diverse portfolio of high-value sponsorships, and discrete events (like Magic Round) that they could sell to them. This ‘big HQ’ version of the world had expanded the competition’s non-broadcast revenue base from around $80m to over $200m. It provided one important building block of financial security for the game.
When the league entered the covid-19 era, it had near $200m in cash and assets, and borrowed $250m. It could do this because it had spotless financial records (look ma no debt!) as well as a coveted asset (the NRL digital platform). Given annual revenue was around $550m (of which TV rights are about $350m), the NRL was well positioned to handle a suspension of the competition. Instead of patiently working towards a restart of the competition, V’Landys has used the break to completely change the role of the organisation.
So far that has resulted in two concrete changes. Firstly, the NRL is reducing the role of the governing body in player development. This essentially means either clubs will develop players or no one will. Given that the majority of development in the league has historically been done by a limited number of clubs, this has a number of implications. It represents a transfer of financial burden from the whole competition to a specific set of clubs, some of which traditionally have plenty of money (Brisbane, Parramatta, Penrith) but also those that are less well endowed (Canberra, Newcastle). It’s one thing to ask Brisbane to play the big role in development, it’s another to ask Canberra to do so more than the Roosters. Strategically this means that there is a chance players will be missed, potentially further ceding areas of talent like the Riverina to the bad game.
This reduced expenditure may have other implications we are not yet aware of. I’m terrified it may have an adverse impact on the NRLW. This league is critical to the ongoing development of rugby league, both in a social sense but also in ensuring it doesn’t lose an entire half of the population to other sports. I’m also not sure what this will mean for international football, though perhaps the more the NRL stays out the better.
V’Landys has also put in place his long held desire to return to one referee. It too is being portrayed as a cost-cutting exercise but given he came to the game pushing it last year, I find that hard to believe.
Rugby league moved to two referees late in the 00s for two reasons. Firstly, it was considered that it was too hard for referee’s to keep up with the game physically. Secondly, this referee has been critical in the proper policing of the ruck. Removing a set of eyes risks the ruck further, meaning more hands where the solo-ref can’t see them. Anyone that has watched international football can tell you that. David Klemmer reported as much recently:
V’Landys is arguing that this decision is about saving money. The idea that he would think it prudent to dramatically alter the game mid-season in order to save a minuscule $2m dollars (about the equivalent of 2 to 3 games of broadcast rights) is an absurd strategy. That he is doing so to create a substandard product is downright irresponsible.
V’Landys is compounding that by changing the ruck penalties to only a tackle count restart. This ostensibly is designed to speed up the ruck, but actually increases the incentive to wrestle by reducing the punishment to only possession and not position or penalty goals. Teams can happily test the ruck at either end of the ground, knowing that the option to kick for touch, or kick a penalty is removed. Teams will simply shut the ruck down in close games late. Adding discretion to this (i.e. the ability of the referee to still award a ‘full’ penalty) will simply create more controversy, more blaming the referees, and more articles about the league being in ‘crisis’.
It’s one thing to propose these ideas – smarter people than me think one referee is a good idea for example – but to do so within the middle of a season is flabbergasting (although, as people have noted, we shifted to a 10 metre rule mid-season in the early 1990s). Teams are already scrambling to put their seasons back together, and with the limited time before the season starts they will be chasing the rules and unable to adapt. It’s been suggested that V’Landys is proposing these ideas for the publicity – to keep rugby league in the news. If this is the case, this is a cynical distraction for teams trying to prepare, and evidence that the man does not value the game as much as he purports.
This counter-revolution is cementing itself in the broadcast discussions we’ve all watched play out publicly over recent weeks. V’Landys was keen to promote that he’d delivered “the biggest pay day the game’s ever seen” when reports emerged that he’d agreed to a $2.3 billion deal with Channel 9 and Fox recently. This appears to have overshot the mark – if it had been agreed to it’s only a ‘record’ because of the length of the deal; the yearly number itself was already a discount. But reports have emerged that this deal won’t be agreed to, and instead a deal in which the competition basically hands back $70 million over the life of the deal is what has resulted. No extended time with a free-to-air partner. Just less money.
V’Landys would argue that he had no option in the current environment and has achieved the best outcome to ensure that the football starts on May 28. A recalcitrant or opportunistic partner made his life difficult, and that he’s managed to ensure the financial viability of the game into the future should be considered a win, not a loss. Rugby league wasn’t able to fight a battle on two fronts.
But the fact is that V’Landys negotiated this deal from a position of weakness. One affected by Coronavirus, but equally built by his thirst to remove any threats to his power-base. He let Channel 9 run rough-shod over the league just to get rid of Greenberg, and all he achieved was losing his leverage to the broadcasters. Channel 9 took advantage of the havoc wrought by V’Landys in order to reduce their costs.
Even worse, V’Landys has capitulated to a company that has been vocal about the fact it doesn’t see league in its long term plans. What’s to stop Channel 9 pulling the same shit next year, demanding another discount? Rugby league will no doubt include the digital platform as part of this deal, meaning that will go the way of AAP quicker than I can count. Instead of future-proofing the move to streaming, and building independence from old fashioned broadcasters, rugby league is tied to Channel 9. It’s 1992 all over again.
Thus the good progress of recent years has been overturned. Rugby league had spent so much time trying to overcome the casual bigotry of low expectations, trying to establish itself a stable, powerful and professional organisation. In a few mere months V’Landys has repealed that, cultivating chaos instead. He’s done it through force of personality, with the support of the compliant media, and by taking advantage of the turmoil of crisis. It’s been an effective counter-revolution.
Let’s hope one day, the pendulum swings forward again.
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