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Fixing rugby league step three of five: Stop selling its soul

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Roar Rookie
8th March, 2019
36

Following on from my two previous articles, ‘Be smart about stadiums’ and ‘Reduce or relocate teams,’ the driving financial forces behind the NRL also need to be addressed.

Television rights and advertising have been the main source of income for basically every sport since televisions exploded in popularity. Channel Nine has partnered with the rugby league for decades now, although ‘partnered’ is a term few could comfortably use. Controlled, perhaps.

Imagine it’s a Friday night, and tens of thousands of fans sit down in front of the television with a beer in hand. Kick-off is advertised at 7.50pm, so at 7.50pm the television is on and ready to go.

The panel is finalising their predictions, and almost exactly at kick-off time, we hear: “And now for the odds with so-and-so from our betting partner…” followed by a minute-long spiel about how good tonight’s odds are.

Then there’s a five-minute ad break. Then finally, ten minutes later than promised, the players start coming onto the field.

An accident? Definitely not.

Channel Nine and their betting sponsors knows that bums are on seats ready to go for the game. They know that all of these people are watching, waiting for kick-off, and it’s the perfect time to ram some ads down our throats.

Channel 9 commentators Andrew Johns and Brad Fittler talking.

Channel 9 commentators Andrew Johns and Brad Fittler. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

We are being taken for a ride by Channel Nine and the NRL’s advertising ‘partners’.

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In the 1950s, the number of televisions in the United Stated exploded, and this nearly killed baseball.

The income from television rights at the time was minimal, and Major League Baseball made most of its money through the fans coming in through the turnstiles.

The minor leagues were almost as big as the majors too, because there were more than 400 teams playing in towns all over the country.

Baseball fans who could not get to a majors game would almost certainly have a local minors team they would support. With television, most of these fans preferred to sit at home and watch the superstars, and rightly so.

Minor league attendances fell through the floor, the number of leagues was reduced by three quarters, and the entire system was only saved through affiliations with Major League clubs.

Television won’t kill rugby league, but it may well kill the attendance rates.

A serious question must be asked, then. Does the NRL actually care about crowd numbers?

They bring in a fraction of the revenue that stadium income produces. They schedule games at times that seem to actively discourage attendance.

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Who in Sydney would work until 5pm on a Friday then make it to a 6pm game?

Why is there even a Thursday night game, other than for people having a quiet night at home watching television?

The NRL has sold half the soul of the game to Channel Nine and then are baffled when crowd numbers dwindle.

Are streaming services the way forward? Or, controversially, regional blackouts? This is a big question, but the NRL must find a way to control its own scheduling again.

The other elephant in the room are the betting and alcohol companies, and these own the other half of rugby league’s soul.

Consider, for a moment, the Benson and Hedges World Series Cricket, and the Winfield Cup. Both major tournaments held in Australia, both sponsored by tobacco companies, with both such sponsorships no longer permitted.

There is little doubt that betting ads will go that same way within a decade, and alcohol within 25 years.

Alcohol advertising is the most fascinating, and indeed contradictory. On one hand, alcohol ads are plastered on television, at stadiums, on jerseys. In the meantime, we have these outrageous alcohol-fueled incidents involving NRL players.

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Players don’t drink and get into trouble because of alcohol advertising, but it is massively hypocritical for the NRL to slap players on the back of the hand for getting into alcohol-related trouble, only to use that same hand to draw from the deep well that is alcohol advertising money.

If the NRL was serious, it could reduce the need for reactive policies such as what has emerged in recent weeks, and start being proactive by addressing the toxic ‘boys club’ culture that exists, beginning by ditching its alcohol partners.

This does leave a huge financial hole for the sport. I am not an economics man, so this is where I open up the floor for debate. In terms of money, do crowd figures actually matter? What could be alternate sources of income for rugby league?

For my last two articles on the subject, I will be looking at a possible way to prevent off-seasons like the one just past, and look to end the annual contract circus.