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Opinion

Can non-NRL rugby league be sold more effectively to Australians?

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Expert
6th January, 2020
35
1987 Reads

Guess what? Rugby league has already kicked off for 2020.

In Rarotonga, my traditional opening of the season – the Rarotonga Nines – was won by Arorangi Bears when they defeated Avatiu Eels 10-0 in the final at BCI Stadium.

Meanwhile, in the north of England, we had a host of preseason games, including but not limited to Salford beating Swinton 52-4 at AJ Bell Stadium and Halifax upsetting Hull 18-10 at the Shay.

Over there they played the week before too, on Boxing Day.

Derrell Olpherts #22 of Salford Red Devils

Super League grand finalists the Salford Red Devils are already back in action. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

In researching a book I’m working on, I recently came across an argument from 23 years ago that I had not previously considered.

The Super League war was about pay television. Until now I would have dismissed calls from old timers for the British game to go back to winter as recidivist rubbish from people who didn’t understand the importance of getting out of football’s way in that part of the world.

But a very wise argument in the Sun-Herald from the great Ian Heads suggested that if rugby league was such an important television product for News Limited in Australia that it would spend $300 million on the Super League war, why would News simultaneously rob itself of three months of programming by supporting a shift of the northern hemisphere game to summer?

Because the British game was substandard? Then why did it spend so much on the World Club Challenge that same year? Certainly rugby league had a higher national profile in the UK in 1995 than it does now, so at least one of the reasons for the switch did not come to fruition.

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But where I’m really going with this column is whether rugby league beyond the NRL can be sold to Australians and whether league – like other sports – can populate its off-season with alternative versions of itself to capture that section of the Antipodean public that would watch it all year round.

Rugby league is so big in Australia that if even a tiny portion of its mainstream support could be captured by an outsider, it would still be profitable.

Let’s compare it to a rock band. Cold Chisel are currently doing stadia and festivals across the country. The vast majority of those who fill these venues, perhaps 90 per cent, know the singles like Flame Trees and Breakfast at Sweethearts and sing along with nostalgia and emotion.

Only ten per cent of the fans at Glenelg Beach the other day would be familiar with Yakuza Girls or Daskarzine. But ten per cent of Cold Chisel’s audience would probably still be enough for them to eek out a living as a bar band. That ten per cent would fill performance spaces at pubs and small clubs.

This year the National Basketball League has reportedly attracted audiences of two million worldwide for some matches because of the presence of NBA draft picks RJ Hampton and LaMelo Ball.

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Sonny Bill Williams is playing Super League this year, so surely that competition should be able to achieve cut-through in Australia and New Zealand in 2020 to eclipse anything it has managed previously.

Sonny Bill Williams.

Toronto’s key recruit Sonny Bill Williams is the Super League’s star attraction. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

On Sunday, the Rugby Football League announced it would stream 15 Championship games on its in-house channel in the first five months of the new season, mostly in the Sunday night time slot opened up by the Wolfpack. Five League 1 games will also be shown.

From a purely commercial standpoint, this content should be marketed to Australians because Australians like rugby league. But the outlets that feature NRL in Australia have a vested interest in promoting that competition and downplaying other rugby league.

I remember someone involved in the Wigan-Hull game in Wollongong a couple of years ago telling me they felt like they were made to feel they were encroaching on someone else’s turf.

It’s expensive to play Super League games in Australia, but then again local authorities in places like Perth, Mackay and elsewhere seem to have money to spend on events to fill their largely dormant stadia.

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Not only that.

The New South Wales and Queensland rugby leagues have significant resources due to Origin but can only service sponsors and media partners three times a year. They are commercially hamstrung for that reason.

What if the states – with youngsters between contracts and recently retired stars – and the top British clubs desperate to break out of their M62 shackles launched a summer Nines series, providing content for five or six weekends of the off-season with tournaments in B markets where the local authorities and audiences would welcome them with open arms?

Don’t worry about the Rugby League Players Association – these players would get a rest when the NRL season kicks off. One thing better than the British game switched back to summer would be the games actually being played in Australia!

As David Gallop used to say, fish where the fish are.

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