The salary cap is always a hot topic in the NRL, particularly last year when the Melbourne Storm were revealed to have systematically rorted the NRL cap, and thereby ruled to have cheated their way to two titles over four years.
The subject was once again in the headlines in the off season, as many pundits (especially NRL salary cap auditor Ian Schubert) wondered how the South Sydney Rabbitohs could afford to sign superstar Greg Inglis and still remain under the cap.
I don’t think I need to explain what a salary cap is, but I will point out the NRL’s two key motivations behind implementing it:
1. To prevent teams from going bankrupt, curtailing costs, and thereby saving clubs from themselves (ie: stopping them from spending more money than they can actually afford).
2. To ensure parity between teams, thus preventing a wealthy club from simply signing more top level players than its rivals, which ensures the competition is a level playing field.
In essence, the theory is that the salary cap exists to make the game better. This is ironic, because the biggest issue that critics of the cap have is that it actually harms the game overall.
So who’s right and who’s wrong?
I guess it all depends on your perspective. If you look at it from the NRL’s point of view, their previously mentioned salary cap objectives have been met.
Despite a few clubs experiencing financial difficulties, it’s been a long time since a club went bankrupt. And in terms of parity, we’ve had 9 different premiers in 13 years. So the NRL claims a moral victory for the salary cap, believing it has done its job.
The other side of the argument has critics asking how the cap could ever possibly be perceived as making the game better when it’s responsible for the constant flow of talented players leaving the game due to them receiving a more attractive financial offer elsewhere, and thereby diluting the overall quality of the sport.
In this regard, the most devastating player drain has always been the English Super League.
Shockingly, there are close to a hundred players with NRL experience playing in England this season, many who have played representative rugby league – including ex-Australian captain Danny Buderus.
This season he’ll be joined by players the caliber of Ryan Hoffman, Willie Mason and Luke O’Donnell. Whilst England has always been a lucrative lure for ageing players coming to the end of their careers, of late, younger players in their prime have also been a part of the yearly exodus.
This should be ringing alarm bells for the NRL.
The NRL has also lost a small, albeit elite, contingent of players to rugby union.
Wendell Sailor, Matt Rogers, Lote Tuquri and Ryan Cross have all represented the Wallabies, while rugby league internationals Mark Gasnier, Sonny Bill Williams, Luke Rooney and Craig Gower, to name a few, fled to Europe. Whilst some of these players returned to rugby league, the fact is, the sport lost them during the prime of their career.
As if all those losses weren’t enough to deal with, the game is also suffering at the hands of AFL poaching, losing young stars Israel Folau and Karmichael Hunt to AFL.
If all those losses can be attributed to the salary cap, can it honestly be making the game better? And is it really working as designed anyway?
It’s true that we haven’t lost a club to bankruptcy for a while, but the NRL’s proclamation about parity is a little misleading.
Yes, it is a fact that in 13 years, we’ve had nine different premiers. But those 13 seasons include: three premierships by proven salary cap cheaters the Melbourne Storm; a premiership by the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, with the exact same squad that was ruled way over the cap the year before; a premiership by the Sydney Roosters in the same year they were fined for not disclosing third party payments to players; and a premiership by the Newcastle Knights, who were fined one year later for being over the cap.
In fact, in all, there have been a whopping 68 separate breaches of the salary cap since 2000, ranging from minor to very serious.
And three premierships were won by the Brisbane Broncos, who have the distinct and unfair advantage of being a one team town.
Therefore, the NRL should be careful about banging on too loudly about parity. In 13 seasons, there have only been two real underdog winners: the Penrith Panthers in 2003, and the Wests Tigers in 2005.
Other than that, a fairly cashed-up club, or one that cheated, has won every year, or 85 percent of the time.
Which means we can dismiss the notion that parity is vital to the success of the sport. After all, every year, everyone knows that only Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool or Arsenal are likely to win the English Premier League.
Yet that doesn’t seem to have a negative effect on crowds, sponsorship, TV rights, media coverage, and so on.
Therefore, it’s time to remove the salary cap. And whilst there will be opinions that doing so will simply see the rich clubs just get stronger, I have four counter arguments:
1. The rich clubs already are stronger, and have won 85 percent of the premierships.
Don’t fool yourself into believing anything else. Even if the rich clubs don’t currently spend more money on players than opposition clubs, they spend more money on buying the best coaches, having the best resources, the best training facilities, better travel arrangements, access to more sponsors, more corporate connections, and so on.
And dare I say it, they’re also better equipped to circumvent the cap. Trust me, the stronger clubs are already stronger.
2. Don’t we want the best competition possible, rather than the most even competition possible?
Surely we want the best players playing in the NRL, regardless of what club they play for? Fans would be inclined to watch more than just the games their team is playing in, because the standard would be so high.
Quite simply, with a higher overall standard of competition comes bigger crowds, more sponsors and higher TV ratings – which equates to more money for everyone.
3. When it comes to evening out the competition, it’s important to remember that you can only have 13 players on the field at one time.
And more importantly, they play in specialised positions.
Yes, a rich club might be able to afford Jarrod Hayne, Billy Slater, Karmichael Hunt, Kurt Gidley, Josh Dugan, Preston Campbell, Matt Bowen, Darius Boyd …
But they’re ALL fullbacks.
If rugby league is able to entice the talent back from English Super League and rugby union (and AFL), the entire competition will achieve evenness through the amazing depth, overflowing to all clubs, at all positions.
4. Every sport is littered with examples of teams that tried to ‘buy a premiership’ by simply purchasing all the best players – and then didn’t win.
Sport, and rugby league, isn’t about having the best players, it’s about having the best team.
It’s time for the salary cap to go, thus allowing the sport to reach its full potential.