Peter V’Landys has made his reputation as a fearless leader. He stood up to a virus. He convinced governments of the safety and seriousness of the game. He even appropriately tugged at the shirt of the AFL. And he brought back the game everyone thought was gone. For most, including many in the media that made him a hero.
But like all mythological heroes since Achilles, V’Landys has a weakness. While there is a tendency in popular discourse to portray him as the sole arbiter of what is good for the game, V’Landys seems to have too often outsourced this decision to broadcasters often in search of a quick advertising buck and with no long term interest in the health of the game.
This has been a hallmark of the V’Landys administration since he wrested power from Todd Greenberg in late 2019. He backtracked on plans of western expansion. He walked back investments in digital rights and NRL owned content development, thus reducing the competitions ability to succeed independent of broadcast money. And he ousted the one person willing to look beyond Channel 9 for the future of the game. The rugby league media for the large part lapped it up, and called the man courageous.
However, it wasn’t courageous when he cowered before Channel 9 and Hugh Marks as they took a giant dump on the game. Marks claimed the game was poorly run and demanded refunds throughout the life of the agreement. V’Landys sacrificed the CEO of the game, and a truckload of cash, including $27.5m in each of 2021 and 2022 – years that will (hopefully) be unaffected by the Coronavirus. This money could have been handy to provide the investment needed to fund V’Landys’ latest thought-bubble of all-three-grades on gameday.
Sidebar: holy hell instead of paying to move 19 players clubs will need to move 60 plus. What a nightmare!
There’s a defensible position that so desperate for financial certainty in the face of Coronavirus, V’Landys made a calculated decision to sacrifice long term money. But this is a generous reading. At the time we said a man with spine would call Channel 9’s bluff. Channel 9 would show every rugby league game they could because they needed it. They were already in buckets of debt, and losing the ratings war to Channel 7. There was never any doubt they would happily gobble down any content the NRL could provide, especially while people were stuck in their homes in desperate search of
distraction entertainment. This was an calculated attempt to save some coin in the out years by capitulating on a whiff of weakness from V’Landys.
We saw how this should have been handled when Channel 7 tried similar tactics with Cricket Australia this summer, and got laughed out of the room. The matter will be resolved in court, but in the meantime Channel 7’s arguments are blowing up in their face as cricket enjoyed record ratings through the Indian test series.
More insidious than just taking money from the game, V’Landys is also allowing Channel 9 to shape the very game itself. This is most recently seen in the diabolical rule changes announced for the 2021 season. The best that can be said is that they might have little impact. The most notable of these is the increased incentive to utilise the field goal by the way of a two-point shot from over 40 metre line. V’Landys said this is designed to “increase the unpredictability” of the game and attract new eye balls. He explicitly said it was, in part, to please the broadcasters.
The message from the fans and our broadcasters has been clear; the game became too predictable and the balance between attack and defence had gone too far in favour of defencePeter V’Landys
Fuck knows how 2 point field goals will shift that balance. Saying people might watch rugby league for field goals is like saying people watch basketball for free throws. It’s an out-and-out misrepresentation and a shortsighted attempt to attract people that simply do not exist. If anything, my anecdotal experience is casual fans asking why rugby league was trying to be more like union.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out where this came from. Channel 9 were also the broadcasters of Super Netball when the game opted to introduce the two point shot. This was also not developed with any foreshadowing or consultation with the fans of the game, and of course was met with derision by the people that actually watch the game. It too was pitched to attract the amorphous “casual viewer” (who apparently is a massive fan of two point things), something it didn’t, couldn’t, and was never going to. It’s hard not to draw a similar inference of interference from the information we have.
It’s also hard not to see changes like the “set restart” rule, introduced without consultation during the Covid break, as part of Channel 9’s putsch. While many like these changes (hint: I do not), their utility is irrelevant. These were changes put in without consultation and without aforethought for their impact on the game. People’s careers ended mid-season, ACL injuries jumped rapidly, because the game had not been given a chance to adapt to this major change in style. Channel 9 asked, and V’Landys delivered, without thought, consultation or preparation. Considering this occurred while teams were putting together squad conditioning in two-and-a-half weeks leading up to May 28, it screams a reckless willingness to sacrifice players’ careers and bodies for Channel 9’s interest.
The fingerprints of Channel 9 can also be seen in the expansion push into Queensland rather than Perth, Adelaide or New Zealand. Channel 9 wants the short-term certainty of the Maroon eyes that currently drive much of the ratings success. Ask anyone why NRL ratings were down in 2020 and you can basically point to the failings of the three Queensland teams (along with structural changes to how we watch television). Channel 9 wants more Queensland. For all his bluster, V’Landys seems to have simply fallen into line on this too. Growing the game, building new markets and the long-term TV bounty that would come from opening up an extra television market (and Sunday evening prime-time TV games) have been sacrificed because of the short-sighted needs of current broadcasting partners.
Imagine taking your advice from Channel 9. From all reports the company is struggling. It’s like looking to rugby union for help: why would you take advice from something that will be out of business within the decade? Channel 9 is haemorrhaging money, and it’s long term strategy of shifting to an entirely on demand model would make sense if that territory hadn’t already been claimed by Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Disney. If Channel 9 don’t have rugby league they are little more than a shell for re-runs of The Block. Without rugby league they will be dead, and V’Landys is terrified of them. Some hero.
The unwillingness of the rugby league media to call this out fascinates me. They complain about about individual decisions but continue to laud V’Landys. Any time he has an unnecessary verbal scrap with AFL or rugby union they hoot and holler and embrace that someone is “finally standing up for the game.” It’s not standing up for the game when you only stand up to the dweebs, but not the bully. It’s called being a coward.
Time will tell what the impact of Channel 9’s hold on Peter V’Landys will be. It’s hard to speculate what the media market will look like in the coming years, but if former Channel 9 CEO Hugh Marks’ ideas are followed, the broadcaster won’t be involved in rugby league. That may be the only thing that stops their damage of the game, because V’Landys won’t stop them.
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