Is it just me, or are the NRL Nines and All Stars games sneaking up on us quickly and – more worryingly – rather quietly?
The All Stars clash is to be held at CBUS Super Stadium on February 22 while the Nines returns after a couple of years off at HBF Park in Perth the previous weekend.
The NRL is a superbly resourced organisation that nails the promotion of its events pretty well. No matter what you think of their decisions from time to time, they can be very, very slick when they focus on something and have spent a lot of their television fortune on shoring things up for when there will be no more television fortunes.
This time of the year, I usually find myself writing a column about how the World Club Challenge is treated poorly, usually by the NRL and its clubs. It’s been around since 1976 but has commercially not moved on much in all that time.
We do no work on it until we know who’s in it. The ideas of it being sold off to neutral territories as a promotional vehicle for the game seems as far away as it ever has been. As long as the stadium is full-ish, everyone is happy.
But in terms of obscurity, it has competition this year in these other pre-season events.
The problem is that there are industries that have grown up around the Nines and the All Stars games that have become independent of actually creating a buzz in the general public and selling tickets.
In the case of the Nines, it’s selling the event to the West Australian government for a pretty penny.
Let’s not forget that the NRL became aggravated at how successful this event was in Auckland and successfully lobbied to take it back and have it run in-house. So this is a big test of the philosophy that since League Central has so many resources, it shouldn’t have to outsource anything.
If the stands in Perth are empty and the continent is oblivious to the whole thing, perhaps the lesson will be that outsourcing allows the partner to focus on on one thing while you go about the business of running the premiership and all the attendant complexities of that.
Nines is a great advertisement for the game and a clear growth area. It will grow, in part, because of perceptions of spectators having a good time.
The World Cup Nines at Bankwest Stadium may have primarily been played to satisfy a television contract in Australia and may even have been a write-off to save a much bigger payout to the breached TV companies. The crowds weren’t great.
But there was really nothing previous with which to compare it. Not many people remember Townsville in 1997. So it got a pass mark with most fans.
The NRL Nines, on the other hand, have a glittering history in Auckland and a damp squib will therefore be judged more harshly – even if makes a tidy sum for the NRL (and let’s face it, they wouldn’t be doing it otherwise).
Being envious of a partner who profits from your IP when they do better than expected is perhaps human nature. But you gain a better understanding of their contribution when you try to do it yourself.
The industry around the All Stars game is not about cash.
It’s the significance to the Indigenous and Maori communities, particularly in south-east Queensland and the rugby league-playing centres of east coast Australia and New Zealand.
It’s the interaction with governments and local authorities at which the NRL is becoming increasingly adept.
Once more, with each passing year, the buzz to the wider public regresses as it becomes more about those on the game’s immediately periphery.
Perhaps what’s needed are publicity, social media and ticketing programmes that run 12 months a year. There are quiet periods when there aren’t Origin tickets or finals packages or whatever to sell when people could be reminded of these events.
Nines and the All Stars game also have histories that don’t seem to be fully recorded or leveraged just yet. Nines is played all around the world, at least every third weekend.
Gluing these grassroots events together and making Nines a sport within a sport is essential if rugby league is to follow the lead of other codes in maximising the value of truncated offshoot rules.