I’d rather die on my feet, than live on my knees – Emiliano Zapata Salazar.
I grew up thinking this sentiment was first espoused by Peter Garrett out front of Midnight Oil. Turns out that it is actually uttered by a Mexican revolutionary from the early 20th century, who did – as it turns out – die on his feet.
A number of the struggling NRL clubs might also like to follow Zapata’s example and choose to go all out for success or die trying.
It is time that the NRL rid the 16 clubs of the shackles of the salary cap and allowed the market to decide – just as happens in the real world – which teams prosper and which teams disappear.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want my team to cease to exist. The idea that one day I might have that faraway hollow stare that North Sydney Bears fans feature so well is horrifying to me.
However, I’d prefer a competition that is genuinely decided by how well each club is run, as opposed to the current situation where the supporters of the ‘have’ clubs lecture the fans of the ‘have not’ teams that it is their poor management solely to blame for their woes. These smug opiners are possessed of a certainty that the chicken preceded the egg.
Under the current model there are two things that stand in the way of the weaker clubs going out backwards. The first is the broadcast deal.
The NRL has guaranteed their broadcast partners eight games most rounds, so sixteen teams are required to fulfil that promise. The lesser clubs role is essentially to make up numbers, to ensure the details of the broadcast deal are met. Like caged chickens being forced fed in pens, they do put out a product – but is it great quality?
The second thing is the salary cap. The NRL’s own logic for having a salary cap is as follows:
“It assists in “spreading the playing talent” so that a few better resourced clubs cannot simply out-bid other clubs for all of the best players. If a few clubs are able to spend unlimited funds it will reduce the attraction of games to fans, sponsors and media partners due to an uneven competition. Allowing clubs to spend an unlimited amount on players would drive some clubs out of the competition as they would struggle to match the prices wealthy clubs could afford to pay.”
There are a number of problems with this logic.
Firstly, spreading the playing talent by this means isn’t always fair. Take the Bulldogs 2002 and Melbourne Storm 2010. Both sides were massively penalised for breaching the salary cap. But take a close look at their sides.
The great majority of the players from those teams were developed by those clubs from juniors. Sure, there are the likes of Clint Newton, Michael Crocker, Darrell Trindall and Brett Finch among them.
But the likes of Willie Mason, Steve Price, Braith Anasta, Hazem El Masri, Cam Smith, Greg Inglis, Billy Slater, Israel Folau, Cooper Cronk, Ryan Hoffman, Luke Patten and Roy Asotasi were not stars before they were developed by those clubs.
Yet the salary cap made no concessions for their successful development, it just penalised them.
That’s not spreading talent. That’s compulsory acquisition in my opinion. Darryl Kerrigan didn’t wear it in The Castle and clubs shouldn’t have to wear it either in return for their good work.
Secondly, the use of unlimited funds reduces the attraction mostly only to the broadcasters, as some of the 16 clubs will inevitably fold. However, the market will find its price all by itself. That’s how capitalism works.
This isn’t a case of each club trying to kill all of the others. The NRL is not akin to the movie Highlander. There can’t only be one. Who would they play?
However, the current situation simply keeps many clubs on life support for the purpose of being part of a 16-team product for broadcasters, rather than allowing the market to sort itself out naturally into a sustainable and truly competitive league. A sixteen-team league is an artificial construct.
Right now there are great debates about third party agreements making an un-level playing field. This centres on the logic that you can’t stop a player making money from their profile. Fair enough too.
However, then we add that these agreements can’t be guaranteed or organised by clubs, or use NRL or club logos. Why not? Surely the deals would be more plentiful and worth more if these artificial barriers weren’t there?
As we don’t know the number or value of third party agreements at each club any discussion of them is purely speculative. Yet allegations of cheating and imbalance abound in regard to them and it damages the integrity of the game.
The easy way to wipe out the issue is to allow carte blanche. Once again, the market will sort itself out.
To stop the clubs with the best business networks just outbidding all other comers and create super clubs we could allow the clubs to use their own funds to compete. We currently don’t allow the clubs to use their own resources to pay players past $9.4 million a year.
The Panthers club is one of the biggest and wealthiest in the country. However, they aren’t able to use their considerable funds to attract and retain players beyond the level of the artificial salary cap.
Why on earth not? They are in no danger of going broke.
Some clubs, however, will be in danger of going broke if the artificial construct of the salary cap is removed. They cling to some vague hope that a few stars will rise from their ranks and that a talented coach will be able to get the meat and potatoes that surround them into good enough shape to jag a premiership.
Or maybe they’ll snare a Supercoach who’ll bring with him players, sponsors and success.
But for the most part it is just vague hope. Their star players will probably be poached. Their coaches sacked again and again. Their management blamed for being useless. They’ll live on their knees.
However, if the salary cap is removed they might just achieve great and sustainable success – at the risk of going out backwards.
I’d rather die on my feet.
It’s time to get rid of the salary cap.