Rugby league sells itself short again

Robert Burgin Columnist

By Robert Burgin, Robert Burgin is a Roar Expert

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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.


    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.

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    The Crowd Says (55)

    • October 22nd 2017 @ 6:47am
      peeeko said | October 22nd 2017 @ 6:47am | ! Report

      is there pay parity at the FIFA world cup?

      • October 22nd 2017 @ 7:27am
        Kangajets said | October 22nd 2017 @ 7:27am | ! Report

        Those players at the FIFA World Cup don’t hold second jobs , football is there job unlike this bloke from the USA .

        • October 22nd 2017 @ 10:00am
          Gavin R said | October 22nd 2017 @ 10:00am | ! Report

          I can guarantee there are teams in the football world cup qualifying who would be in the same boat.

          That’s the price when the sport is barely internationally recognised. Every sport has a level where players must pay their own way.

      • October 22nd 2017 @ 1:23pm
        Peter Phelps said | October 22nd 2017 @ 1:23pm | ! Report

        Its how the game came to exist.

        • October 23rd 2017 @ 12:20am
          Chook said | October 23rd 2017 @ 12:20am | ! Report

          Any relation to the hack actor

    • October 22nd 2017 @ 8:36am
      Birdy said | October 22nd 2017 @ 8:36am | ! Report

      I watched the union last night and saw the ball was sponsored by one of the worlds largest car makers and the Wallabies by our national airline.
      All this for a sport on the decline.
      I see highlights of the AFL to see sponsors only allowed a very small space on the club jerseys.
      Our jumpers look like bill boards and still struggle for sponsors.

      Time to look for a professional marketing team , world wide if necessary.

      • October 22nd 2017 @ 9:07am
        Terry Tavita said | October 22nd 2017 @ 9:07am | ! Report

        who said rugby union was dying in australia?..45k plus on a wet night for a dead rubber at suncorp is not bad..

        • October 22nd 2017 @ 9:09am
          Justin Kearney said | October 22nd 2017 @ 9:09am | ! Report

          Would have sold out 5 years ago. Good crowd though.

        • October 22nd 2017 @ 9:35am
          Birdy said | October 22nd 2017 @ 9:35am | ! Report

          The word i used was decline.
          Get your head out of the sand.
          The game was held at suncorp,
          The best rectangular stadium in the country plus playing the All Blacks guarantees a large Kiwi crowd.

          • October 22nd 2017 @ 10:06am
            Terry Tavita said | October 22nd 2017 @ 10:06am | ! Report

            wasn’t really talking bout your post..just making a general comment..

      • October 22nd 2017 @ 10:00am
        Eric said | October 22nd 2017 @ 10:00am | ! Report

        Rugby is in decline – haha – go look at how much growth there is in union acoss many countries. Union has had a bad year this year but will pick itself up again as the wallabies start winning again.

        • October 22nd 2017 @ 10:31am
          Birdy said | October 22nd 2017 @ 10:31am | ! Report

          You should watch more tv eric or stimulate your brain in other ways, rather than contribute to the roar.. Marbles would be right up your alley.
          Decline in Australia is a lot different to world union.

          • October 22nd 2017 @ 3:10pm
            Eric said | October 22nd 2017 @ 3:10pm | ! Report

            So personal attacks are your forte when you can’t provide substantive replies. Interesting.

            • October 22nd 2017 @ 7:15pm
              Birdy said | October 22nd 2017 @ 7:15pm | ! Report

              Read my comment, no attack on union,did not mention NZ sponsorship.actually praised sponsorship for union and afl and said league could do so much more.
              Union not in decline in Australia?
              What happened to the force?
              Is there still talk of further reductions in SR?
              I rest my case.

              • Roar Rookie

                October 23rd 2017 @ 10:08am
                Dogs Boddy said | October 23rd 2017 @ 10:08am | ! Report

                Super Rugby expanded too quickly and a decision was made (poorly I might add) to remove a team from Australia to try and strengthen the comp. By the way the Force made the finals this year, the only Australian team to do so.

                Did we say RL was in decline when they axed 6 teams from the NRL??

                Union is still going strong in Australia. Comparing RL and RU crowds (the only thing you seem to use as a benchmark) I would suggest RL has more to worry about than Union.

                As for the article it’s sad but a common theme in international sport. For every powerhouse there is a team who struggles to buy everyone boots to play in. Having the World Cup pay every player equally for the competition would be a good start, but I have no idea how much the last cup earned and if that would even be enough to cover this expense, as well as put on the game. The problem the USA has is that RL is not a college game, and one of the fringe sports in their native land.

                I hope the USA puts in a decent showing so that it can garner a bit more interest back home. A cashed up, well supported, well sponsored and strong USA team would be a real threat.

              • October 23rd 2017 @ 9:36pm
                Fred said | October 23rd 2017 @ 9:36pm | ! Report

                Super Rugby crowds were pretty bad this year, so Union has as much to worry as anyone. But just read an article today about A League crowds and TV figures being awful too.

                Sport in general seems to have had a tough year with crowds this year. Not really sure why, maybe people are tightening their belts to pay down their ridiculous mortgages.

          • October 22nd 2017 @ 3:57pm
            loosehead said | October 22nd 2017 @ 3:57pm | ! Report

            Well, I guess there are levels of decline. Sure the Super Rugby was a shambles this year and the Wallabies haven’t been setting the world on fire of late ( the win against the All Blacks last night might go someway to fix that), but I just watched the Grand Final of the South Australian Rugby on NITV and judging by the crowd and their reaction at the end, Rugby is alive and well in S.A. The Shute shield has had its best season in a decade, crowds and sponsorship are up, Intrust Super have just extended their sponsorship for the next three years, Channel 7 saw there was enough interest to show the Shute Shield GF on the main channel. So while I admit the provincial and national game is some what in a decline it would seem the club rugby scene is travelling along quite nicely.

            • October 24th 2017 @ 3:51pm
              Working Class Rugger said | October 24th 2017 @ 3:51pm | ! Report

              Declining attendance and ratings seems to be a bit of a universal issue at present both here and abroad.


              Both Tampa Bay and Central Florida were part of that development competition initiated by the Axemen before moving to the USARL to create the Southeastern conference in order to reduce overall travel costs. The USARL season only featured 11 clubs this season.

              If you can find more clubs and post the link I’d be happy to accept that. Additionally, my point on foreign money has more to do with interest than anything else. If it existed then more local money would be getting on board but at present all the local money is headed toward both Major League Rugby and Super 7s.

    • October 22nd 2017 @ 9:07am
      Justin Kearney said | October 22nd 2017 @ 9:07am | ! Report

      I still remember attending a meeting at moore park some years ago where the person responsible for international rugby league initially seemed challenged to discuss the topic seriously. We havent progressed much since then i am afraid.

    • October 22nd 2017 @ 10:19am
      Paul said | October 22nd 2017 @ 10:19am | ! Report

      Sorry, but this story smells.

      According to the story, they US team doesn’t have a sponsor. Well, according to the USA Rugby League website they do – a mob called momencio. In fact, they seem to have well put together web page that includes things like a vision statement, core values, etc. It also names a media manager, so it’s safe to assume they have people capable of drumming up sponsorship which, by the way, is THEIR responsibility.

      Perhaps the Roar Expert who wrote this piece could contact USA Rugby League and find out how many full time staff they have and what their plans are to attract more sponsorship? That way he could present a balanced piece, rather than this beat up.

      • October 22nd 2017 @ 12:20pm
        Mat said | October 22nd 2017 @ 12:20pm | ! Report

        I was about to say the same thing myself Paul. I checked out the USA site yesterday and saw that they were sponsored. To be fair the article was dated 20 Oct. so maybe they have only been picked up very recently.

        I did however also come across a large number of companies etc that are named as partners of the RLWC itself. I assume they are all sponsorship of some sort. See below.

      • October 22nd 2017 @ 1:08pm
        Danny said | October 22nd 2017 @ 1:08pm | ! Report

        Paul, you need to read what is written before going off on a ill informed rant. The author of this article wrote…..

        “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.”

        The company that is now sponsoring the USA team only signed on two days ago, ergo they were, for the second year in a row, searching for a major sponsor until just before the tournament started.

        There is nothing smelly about this story at all and the author, quite rightly, points out that for all of the money and “leadership” in the game, the lesser nations are given virtually no assistance in growing the game in their country.

        • October 22nd 2017 @ 2:16pm
          Justin Kearney said | October 22nd 2017 @ 2:16pm | ! Report

          Exactly and the substance of the article is that the international federation should be working to a whole of game approach and providing support and guidance to organistions like the usarfl. Pretty logical really.

      • Columnist

        October 22nd 2017 @ 5:58pm
        Robert Burgin said | October 22nd 2017 @ 5:58pm | ! Report

        The sponsorship was only secured this week, seven days out from the start of the tournament. That means it was sourced post the fundraising exercise by Freed. And just to be totally clear, I’m definitely not having a go at the USARL in this article. They do what they can and I wish them the best of luck. In fact I’m not even really having a go at the RLIF, just suggesting a different model to administrative growth that makes sense to me from working closely with the game in the past 15-20 years. I know their employees get stretched thin. But across rugby league we need to handle sponsorships bettr, all the way from junior footy to internationals.

    • October 22nd 2017 @ 1:24pm
      Terry Tavita said | October 22nd 2017 @ 1:24pm | ! Report

      ..the question that should be asked is, what is in it for a sponsor to back the US rugby league team?..what sort of value /mileage will it garner for its service or product?..will any US matches be aired in the US?..if so, on what channel/network?.. how many people will get to watch it? can have a super duper mkting team but if there is little to no incentive for sponsors, they wont put their money behind it..

      • October 22nd 2017 @ 2:12pm
        Justin Kearney said | October 22nd 2017 @ 2:12pm | ! Report

        Thank you captain obvious.

    • October 22nd 2017 @ 1:38pm
      Bill said | October 22nd 2017 @ 1:38pm | ! Report

      How many actual Americans play league?
      I read (Wikipedia mind you) that Australia had 70 gridiron clubs and 3000 players, a national team which plays in world comps and yet would receive little sponsorship etc in oz.

      Is American rugby league more popular in the us than gridiron is in oz?- if not you could hardly expect it to attract much sponsorship.

      • October 22nd 2017 @ 10:17pm
        Working Class Rugger said | October 22nd 2017 @ 10:17pm | ! Report

        There are only 12 clubs nationwide in the US.

        • October 23rd 2017 @ 7:27am
          Fred said | October 23rd 2017 @ 7:27am | ! Report

          12 clubs in the national comp, but far more than that at an amateur level.

          • October 23rd 2017 @ 4:01pm
            Working Class Rugger said | October 23rd 2017 @ 4:01pm | ! Report

            Nope. Just the 12. There’s a team up in Chicago called the Stockyarders who play sporadically and there was a guy trying to get something going in Iowa but outside of that. There’s not much else. Not hating on it. Just pointing out the facts.

            Edit: There’s 14 teams apparently.

            • October 23rd 2017 @ 4:09pm
              Terry Tavita said | October 23rd 2017 @ 4:09pm | ! Report

              reading some of the articles on here you’d be forgiven thinking league is on the verge of taking over north america..

              • October 23rd 2017 @ 4:28pm
                Working Class Rugger said | October 23rd 2017 @ 4:28pm | ! Report

                Rugby League will never get anywhere in the US without a willingness to invest time and money in building a base and facilities within the country itself. And even then, we’re talking decades of work and millions upon millions of dollars.

                There’s been talk of late about a New York bid looking at the English system looking emulate the Wolfpack in Toronto. The problem with that (as with the Wolfpack) is that the money behind it is foreign. Not saying someone cannot invest their money in such a venture but considering the costs of running such a squad the likelihood of any development occurring outside of that is minimal.

                As opposed to that. The group behind the second attempt to launch professional Rugby in the US is with the exception of San Diego which is 50% foreign backed, is entirely local money. All of these clubs have existing bases and have either previously engaged in development or have initialised such initiatives to do so.

              • October 23rd 2017 @ 9:56pm
                Fred said | October 23rd 2017 @ 9:56pm | ! Report

                Since when has New York had a problem with foreign money?

                And when was the last time we saw a sporting match of any kind between New York and ‘old’ York? 🙂

                A trans-Atlantic Super League is the most exciting thing I can remember happening in the sport.

              • October 23rd 2017 @ 4:54pm
                Terry Tavita said | October 23rd 2017 @ 4:54pm | ! Report

                I’m a union man and an international league fan (don’t care much for the nrl) but I reckon the in-your-face physicality of league makes it very hard to supplant it anywhere where there is no league culture or a small base..parents would also be very wary of little jonny getting roughed-up in a sport they are not familiar with..union on the other hand is more technical but simple and can be picked up at park games and school yards and uni campuses by just passing a rugby ball around and playing touch rugby..there is also sevens which is easy to pick up..
                if i was a league betting man i’d prop up teams like ireland and scotland and get them to play the tomahawks in the US to get some fan familiarity..that is what WR is doing in the taking the big tests and tapping into irish nationalism there..the US mkt atm is ripe for the picking with the NFL in a bit of trouble..the recent deal between the home unions and nbc to broadcast 6 nations matches on prime tv means the opportunity is not lost on the big broadcasters..and you don’t get any bigger than NBC in the US..

              • October 24th 2017 @ 9:39am
                Fred said | October 24th 2017 @ 9:39am | ! Report

                Terry, I think the ‘mum not wanting little johnny to get hurt’ is a serious issue for both codes of rugby, but I think that is an issue mainly in countries where both codes already exist. i.e the developed, comfortable, bubble wrap West.

                For both codes of rugby, or contact sport generally, that cultural issue doesn’t exist in Eastern Europe, the Pacific Islands, Africa, Jamaica etc

            • October 23rd 2017 @ 9:46pm
              Fred said | October 23rd 2017 @ 9:46pm | ! Report

              Like I said, that’s just the teams in the national comp. There are numerous other smaller amateur teams. The Southeastern rugby league championship is but one example of a feeder comp for the USARL. Not saying it’s massive in the US, but it is much bigger than 14 teams.

              • October 24th 2017 @ 7:09am
                Working Class Rugger said | October 24th 2017 @ 7:09am | ! Report

                The teams from the Southeastern league have since joined the USARL. They are counted in the 14 teams I mentioned. Look it up.

              • October 24th 2017 @ 9:13am
                Fred said | October 24th 2017 @ 9:13am | ! Report

                Sorry none of the teams from that reserve grade comp are in the USARL. It was a reserve grade comp established by the Jacksonville Axemen, who are in the USARL.

                Do you mean the AMNRL?

      • October 23rd 2017 @ 1:08pm
        Cathar Treize said | October 23rd 2017 @ 1:08pm | ! Report

        I’d go sa far to say the USARL run a better comp than Gridiron Australia. The Hawks also play Jamaica & Canada, they played France recently by memory? & are participating in their 2nd world cup, so they deserve their spot in this RLWC & the number of domestic players in the squad is a real testament to the development of the game there.

        • October 23rd 2017 @ 4:32pm
          Working Class Rugger said | October 23rd 2017 @ 4:32pm | ! Report

          Their competitiveness on the pitch will be the testament to the level of development in the US. Domestic players are great but most of these teams could do that and still be largely noncompetitive. Being able to go with the bigger guns for long periods is the real litmus test.

          As for Gridiron Australia. They run a completely different structure to the USARL. State leagues first then a national rep championship. Gridiron actually runs deeper here than League does in the US.

          • October 23rd 2017 @ 9:52pm
            Fred said | October 23rd 2017 @ 9:52pm | ! Report

            They are competitive on the pitch against other tier 2 nations. They had a tough qualification path for the World Cup with hard games against Canada and Jamaica.

            The fact that they haven’t felt the need to rely on heritage players at this World Cup shows a faith in the USARL.

            Don’t get me wrong, PNG and Fiji will beat them comfortably. But league in America is doing as well as can be expected.

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