With the GWS Giants having finally made their AFL debut while the Gold Coast Titans are on the verge of collapse, talk of rugby league taking care of its nurseries in the face of an advancing and cashed up AFL has become increasingly shrill.
However, while the two codes do battle over the hearts, minds and wallets of Western Sydney and South-East Queensland, a rugby league nursery rich in players, punters and potentially pocket is being ignored – its birthplace.
Currently IMG sports media owns the exclusive rights to the NRL outside of Australia and New Zealand, having signed a three-year deal in 2010.
While IMG have been successful in getting the game shown on televisions in Italy, the Middle East and USA, the UK have not seen a game of regular season NRL since 2009 when Setanta UK, which owned the rights at the time, went bust.
Sky Sports UK still shows State of Origin and the grand final and Premier Sport broadcasts six games per round.
A 2009 estimate by the UK office of statistics stated there were around 120,000 Australians living in the UK.
Because while there will always be a relatively small but constant stream of Australians and Kiwis living in the motherland looking to get their weekly fix of NRL, the UK is possibly the only other country in the entire world with a legitimate league competition and, therefore, legitimate local league fans.
These fans would be particularly interested in the Australian game at the moment with plenty of Englishmen making waves in the NRL.
Sam Burgess, Gareth Ellis and James Graham have all made the transition from Super League to NRL, while Burgess’s brothers Luke and George are also signed to Souths.
Meanwhile, Jack Reed, Gareth Widdop and Chris Heighington have all made the decision to represent England and as many as 40 other NRL players are in English coach Steve McNamara’s sights as future Lions based on either their heritage or place of birth.
Just as Australian interest in the English Premier League spikes whenever Aussies are performing well over there – there was a period in the mid-90s where Leeds United featuring Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka got more ink than the entire NSL – so too are the Poms interested in their own making good in the world’s toughest league competition.
Perhaps, then, the greatest sticking point in getting the NRL on the box in England is the five-year contract Super League signed with Sky Sports in 2011.
The ARLC has been given a clear mandate on their upcoming five-year deal – get a billion or don’t come home. Super League on the other hand signed their deal for an estimated £90million, which was a record deal and one hailed by Rugby Football League chairman Richard Lewis as being, “a tremendous outcome for the sport of rugby league”.
If the local game is only getting £90million (roughly AU$140million) over five years, the NRL broadcast rights would be significantly less.
Nevertheless, Panthers boss Phil Gould recently criticised the ARLC for their deal on gambling revenue, claiming the model the NRL are signed up to has cost them as much as $15 million a year.
“The NRL should have been looking at this as a new revenue stream… Retrospectively, it’s cost the game tens of millions of dollars not to be involved and whilst it opens opportunities for the future, we’ve missed the boat through a lack of action,” Gould said in The Age.
If the NRL TV rights are worth even half what the Super League rights fetched, that’s another $15 million a year boat being missed.
More importantly, it’s a golden opportunity to grow the game which is being ignored.
This post has been updated and edited following information provided by the NRL.