Rugby league sells itself short again

Robert Burgin Columnist

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    How would you feel if, on the eve of the Rugby League World Cup, Ben Hunt was forced to stand on stage and repeatedly replay his 2015 grand final mea culpa as a way of guaranteeing his selection?

    What would your impression be if Cameron Smith needed to run a ‘guess the number of jelly beans in the jar’ competition to raise funds for his participation?

    Or what about if Sam Burgess had to submit himself to a Sunday School dunk tank so that he could don the English jersey?

    That’s effectively what happened when USA player Kristian Freed held a fund-raiser in a shed on the edge of a public park to cover his expenses during the World Cup.

    There were Jatz crackers, diced cheese and sliced kabana, trivia questions, raffles collected in plastic plates, and a game where you threw $2 coins at a bourbon bottle and the closest coin won the prize.

    To be fair it was a great afternoon, but it was hard to walk out of the event feeling as though everything was A-OK.

    That was mostly because Freed felt compelled to replay footage on a projection screen of the 2013 World Cup when the American fullback was unceremoniously steamrolled by a rampaging Jarryd Hayne.

    He showed it not once, not twice, but at least half-a-dozen times.

    Sure it was part of his schtick – a bloke not afraid to laugh at himself.

    However there’s no doubt he rolled the video as a way of engaging the audience, coming in the same breath as he explained how a month off from work representing his country would affect him financially.

    Would he have gladly stood there and humiliated himself on a wet Sunday afternoon if he knew his expenses were already covered?

    Would he have spent weeks rounding up generous people to donate free massages, bottles of wine and other prizes to raffle if the money was already in the bank?

    How many players would even emcee their own fund-raiser?

    Again, sure it was a fun event, but there was an uneasy feeling you were watching a seal perform in captivity for its supper.

    What it also did was further highlight a glaring flaw in rugby league that can be found at almost every level from local league to the international arena.

    And no, I’m not solely talking about parity in pay for World Cup participants.

    This is the second Cup in a row that the USA has been on the sniff for a major sponsor right up until the tournament itself.

    RLWC captains assemble before the 2013 tournament.

    (AFP PHOTO/PAUL ELLIS)

    The fund-raiser was held right next to Freed’s junior club where, up until recently, a cabinetmaker was in charge of handling sponsorship negotiations for one of Brisbane’s proudest clubs.

    That club is a member of a competition, a division and state authority where, to the best of my knowledge, there have been dedicated, qualified sponsorship managers for a fraction of those organisations’ existence.

    All across the country and around the world we let this happen in rugby league.

    Instead of employing specialists who can leverage the massive databases, emotional investment and promotional potential of rugby league, we have traditionally thrown every club out to the wolves and asked them to find their way home.

    In a city like Brisbane or Sydney that can mean 70 different plumbers, butchers and retirees who are going it alone; in addition to being club president or secretary, they’re expected to become experts in commercial negotiation.

    Rather than land the big fish, they inevitably make do with small local businesses who sponsor out of the kindness of their hearts, many times devoting their modest means through a personal connection.

    To me, decentralised sponsorship is the one thing that has held rugby league back more than anything.

    Ten years ago if you walked into most regional rugby league offices you would find a couple of secretaries, a whole heap of coaching and development staff, a handful of administrators, a referees’ coordinator and maybe a few casual data entry positions.

    There was nobody who would have direct experience for sourcing sponsors.

    How do things pay for themselves? If you’re only putting in so much at one end, you can only take so much out of the other end.

    How does a sport grow when that is the mindset? How do you not chew through volunteers regularly when you place a mountain of financial expectation over their heads?

    It’s well-documented the Rugby League International Federation is run by two-and-a-half employees and on the smell of an oily rag.

    And it seems incongruous that one of those should not be a sponsorship expert who can take the scattergun approach of well-meaning volunteers and direct it into something more targeted and ultimately successful.

    A sponsorship manager should be the first or second person any league organisation employs.

    Would Kristian Freed and others of his ilk be begging for coins if there was a coordinated, well-resourced approach to sponsorships that all developing league nations could tap into?

    Or are we happy for a USA team representing the largest population of any nation at the World Cup to be winging it with sponsors on an ad-hoc basis?

    The game’s potential is so much greater, but we have conditioned rugby league folk to accept an unattractive, uninspiring user-pays system from a young age, at all levels.

    Sure, it makes for some quaint, oddball stories once every four years when amateurs get a shot at the big time en masse.

    But we can do much better. It’s time to lift our game.

    Robert Burgin
    Robert Burgin

    Robert Burgin is a sports writer of 20 years with a particular appetite for Rugby League's exotic and bizarre tales. Find him on Twitter @RobBurginWriter.