George Orwell’s Animal Farm was a metaphor for the Russian Revolution and the subsequent tyranny of the regime that deposed the old tyrants.
After the takeover of the farm, the liberated animals write the rules for their new utopia on the side of the barn. The foremost of these rules was “All animals are equal”.
Later in the story, underneath is scrawled “but some animals are more equal than others”.
And so it is with the distribution of free-to-air spots for NRL sides.
Presently, Channel Nine has control of the match scheduling and they can choose the matches that are most commercially appealing to them. Fair enough, right? They pay the big bucks, they should be able to get what they want.
However, the problem is that what Channel Nine care about is not the overall health of the game. As a business, they rightly care first and foremost about making a profit for their shareholders.
As a result, they seem to pick virtually the same teams every week for the free-to-air spots. A handful of sides get the lion’s share of the Thursday night, Friday night and Sunday afternoon spots, while other sides are barely seen.
Fans of those forsaken teams must either pay for Fox Sports, get a season pass from the NRL and stream online, or listen to the radio. Alternatively, they could follow the AFL, which features a far more equitable sharing of the free-to-air spots.
Further, these marginalised sides face an uphill battle to get sponsorship as they are unlikely to get the exposure to the widest audience.
However, the biggest problem is with the supporter base. As a kid, I first started going to Seiffert Oval not to see the Canberra Raiders, but to see the players from the other teams whom I watched on television.
I went to see Parramatta. I wanted to see them in the flesh. I’ll never forget the excitement of watching Eric Grothe and Peter Sterling that cold Sunday in 1982. I paid very little attention to the lone try for the Raiders, scored by a wiry young centre called Craig Bellamy.
I had no idea whom the Raiders players were. I saw the Eels on the TV every second week. And so it is still.
The problem with the inequitable sharing of free-to-air games was brought home to me the other day when I was around at a family member’s house. One of the kids – a nine-year-old league fan who is born, bred and raised in Canberra – went past me with a haircut he thinks is cool but I think looks like he lost a bet.
So I said to him, “that hair cut looks worse than Jordan Rapana’s”, to which the boy responded, “who’s that?”
I was almost too stunned to say, “Presently the leading line breaker in the NRL and one of the leading try scorers.”
This kid watches the NRL frequently but he doesn’t have Fox. He told me that he was going to see the Rabbitohs when they came to town and then reeled off lots of their players’ names. In spite of their relatively poor season, South Sydney will feature in 16 free-to-air games this year.
The kid couldn’t name a Raider. This kid who has never lived anywhere else knows nothing about the team from his town.
Out of all of the free-to-air matches this year the Raiders have only featured in four of them. What’s even worse is that they are doing better than the Warriors, Newcastle and the Gold Coast.
Just look at this chart to see the haves and have-nots of free-to-air games in 2016:
|Team||No. free-to-air games allotted in 2016||Percentage of matches on FTA||Percentage of overall FTA matches|
|St George Illawarra||11||45.8%||15.5%|
Five of the eight most featured sides on free-to-air this year did make last year’s finals. However, the bias is clearly towards the larger Sydney sides and, of course, the Broncos. These sides pull in the viewers and with those viewers come the advertising dollars.
However, that course doesn’t allow the clubs outside that clique to get a foothold to improve their lot, designating them to the role of ‘making up the numbers’.
The NRL holds off announcing the scheduling of the last six rounds until well into the season. Last Friday the NRL released those details.
During the first 20 rounds you can understand that the scheduling would be based upon: a) favouring the top teams from the previous season; b) viewer favourites; and c) a fair spread of all teams.
Yet once the free-to-air matches for the run into the finals are announced you would expect that it would be based almost entirely on the current season’s form, with an emphasis on showing the most pivotal match-ups.
Of the 36 free-to-air spots that teams could get allocated, 24 of them (66.6%) are taken by just six sides – just one-third of the clubs. And which clubs are they? No surprises: the Broncos, Bulldogs, Roosters, Dragons, Eels and Manly.
Thirteen (36%) of those free-to-air spots have been allotted to sides unlikely to finish in the top eight. Just have a look at the distribution:
|Ladder start of Round 17||Allotted free-to-air matches in final six rounds|
|St George Illawarra||Three|
The games selected to go on free to air in four of the final six rounds have nothing to do with the form match-ups and everything to do with maintaining the status quo of covering preferred teams. These examples from the following rounds leave no doubt about that:
Free to air: Brisbane (5th) vs Roosters (15th), Bulldogs (6th) vs Dragons (9th), Sea Eagles (14th) vs Knights (16th)
Not on free to air: Cowboys (3rd) vs Storm (2nd)
Free to air: Dragons (9th) vs Broncos (5th), Eels (4th?) vs Sea Eagles (14th), Wests Tigers (12th) vs Cowboys (3rd)
Not on free to air: Sharks (1st) vs Raiders (7th)
Free to air: Bulldogs (6th) vs Sea Eagles (14th), Broncos (5th) vs Eels (4th?), Roosters (15th) vs Cowboys (3rd)
Not on free to air: Raiders (7th) vs Storm (2nd)
Free to air: Broncos (5th) vs Roosters (15th), Bulldogs (6th) vs Rabbitohs (13th), Warriors (11th) vs Eels (4th?)
Not on free to air: Storm (2nd) vs Sharks (1st)
The scheduling has virtually ignored the realities of this year’s competition. Although they are second and third-last respectively, there seem to be some people in the scheduling department at Channel Nine who think the Sea Eagles and Roosters are still a chance in 2016.
Conversely, one wonders exactly what the Sharks have to do to get priority?
A few months ago I examined how the scheduling had dealt a number of sides five-day turnarounds between matches.
In spite of the furore that occurred due to this, the finalised draw has thrown up another 12 instances of five-day turnarounds, five of which involve the side having to travel interstate as well. No side has won so far this season when facing a five-day turnaround with genuine travel, and 75 per cent of the time even without travel, sides with a five-day turnaround also lose.
So who are the lucky sides that get to play the teams with very challenging turnarounds? Well, it probably won’t surprise you to know that the sides that get the free-to-air favouritism feature heavily on the happy side of this equation too:
|Teams||Games played against teams on five-day turnarounds|
|St George Illawarra||Zero|
Lo and behold! The Broncos and Bulldogs get the advantage of meeting the most teams coming off short turnarounds in 2016. Manly, South Sydney and the Roosters are just behind them.
And once more at the bottom we see poor old Gold Coast. The team that clearly either no one cares about, or vested interests don’t want to be able to get a decent toehold in south-east Queensland – or both.
And there are the ladder-leading Sharks as well. If they can manage to pull off the fairytale this season, it will be all the more impressive given the scheduling inequities they will also have to overcome.
The NRL regains control of the match scheduling in 2018. However, until then it’s a good bet that some teams will continue to be far more equal than others.