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What should the next NRL TV deal look like?

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Expert
3rd September, 2019
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We’ve had more kite-flying this week about the relocation or removal of Sydney clubs and the expansion of the NRL at the behest of Channel Nine.

Nine’s director of sport, Tom Malone, has been up front about his network wanting to keep the number of teams at 16, because as he told The Daily Telegraph, “More clubs and more games just adds more cost – but is unlikely to generate any incremental revenue.”

This muscle-flexing by the free-to-air network is hardly a surprise. Broadcasters want more eyes on screens, more chances to make cash and they’ve put a truckload of their own money on the line for the chance to do so.

Whether fans like it or not (and usually it’s not), the price of doing business at this level is that your broadcast partner gets a big say in how things run – like scheduling, for example. That’s why big-drawing teams like Brisbane are on free-to-air so often.

In 2015, when the NRL’s current television broadcast deal was up for negotiation, then-NRL CEO David Smith was widely panned for leaping into bed with Nine at the earliest opportunity, seduced a little too easily by the allure of $925 million.

The network’s bid basically offered nothing new on what had always happened and there was little if any appetite from Smith and the NRL work in any new broadcast requirements – they just rolled over.

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The CEO resigned shortly after signing the Nine deal but before an agreement was reached over the pay-TV rights.

Smith’s decision and lack of investigation of other options showed the NRL was borderline subservient to Channel Nine. There were a stack of things that needed to be addressed about the coverage, but the NRL through Smith squibbed the tough conversation yet again.

Is it just a sure thing then that Nine will get the rights again from 2023? Is that in the interests of rugby league? You could make a strong argument that the network takes the game for granted.

This year Nine promised “a brand-new, fresh look that takes rugby league into the future”. But there is little to no innovation or creativity in their suite of offerings.

Until the last five games of the season, when a Saturday night game is added, they still only show three live games out of eight.

Their talent pool is also pitifully small. Because there are only three games, it’s the same play-by-play and special-comments people for almost every broadcast: Phil Gould, Paul Vautin, Wally Lewis, Darren Lockyer, Andrew Johns, Brad Fittler.

Additions like Ruan Sims, Billy Slater and Johnathan Thurston offer variety of opinion but overwhelmingly we are getting more of the same banal in-jokes and whinging.

Channel 9 commentators Andrew Johns and Brad Fittler talking.

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

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That NRL commentary team spends more time complaining about refereeing decisions and pining for the old days than they do telling us what’s going on out on the field.

Post-game coverage has devolved into which of the expert panel can dramatically editorialise about how a refereeing decision ruined everything or how the game is soft and not like it used to be.

Once they’ve all agreed with each other about how the game is in crisis, it’s into the rooms for painfully awkward interviews with players that have absolutely zero to do with the game we just watched and serve no purpose other than letting Nine post emoji-loaded social media videos of these apparently hilarious antics.

That’s for those lucky enough to see the post-game coverage, anyway. Broadcasts into cities like Melbourne are cut the instant the final whistle blows, suddenly switching to a movie or some other pointless show. This even happens with State of Origin games, the supposed showcase of the best of the best.

If the NRL were serious about getting the most of out their broadcast deal, maybe they’d look at a partner or partners who have some semblance of interest in growing the game rather than treating it like its own plaything.

The sports media landscape is changing rapidly. Budgets are tight and while marquee leagues like the NRL and AFL will still command the biggest deals, there are no guarantees that numbers like the $1.8 billion for the current contract will be matched.

So the NRL need to be smarter about how they approach this round of negotiations. There are opportunities, such as selling Origin as its own package, selling Magic Round as a stand-alone product and requiring every game be broadcast live, selling different nights to different channels, and an allocation for simulcast pay-TV-only games if the league requires it – say, for example, this Sunday’s Tigers versus Sharks top-eight decider at Leichhardt.

Leichhardt

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

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I’d be most surprised if there weren’t digital-exclusive games broadcast on the NRL TV platform for a nominal fee. If they’ve spent so much money building the platform, why not use it for the premium content?

Currently Telstra has the digital rights. Surely the NRL would bring that in house and look at how they can boost paid subscriptions? One option is team-only packages where you can watch your club’s games live for the season.

The options are endless and there’s a stack of ways to package the game to boost the cash injection, grow the game around the country, and give fans something new and fresh compared to this same old, same old. Rugby league is screaming out for it.

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As for relocating clubs, removing clubs or adding teams, that’s going to happen no matter which channel is broadcasting. The NRL have made clear their intentions for expansion, and for it to work properly, the broadcaster needs to back it in. They won’t if they don’t get a say in it.

Whoever holds the broadcast rights will have a huge amount of sway in what happens and where. That’s the price of doing business.

The next deal is a great chance to move away from the traditional arrangements and create something that can suit pretty much everyone.

If Channel Nine want to be part of it, I’d hope the NRL has the courage to tell them how things will be, rather than get overawed and treated like a patsy yet again.