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Catalans: The spoils of professional sport without the scrutiny

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Expert
4th February, 2020
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Let’s talk about scrutiny in professional sports.

Generally speaking, players, coaches and administrators would rather live without it. Fans like scrutiny as long as it is applied to other teams, or to their’s when they think the coach should be sacked – and pretty much only then.

But scrutiny is, in most places at most times, a natural by-product of an organisation being in the professional sports biz.

There’s the volunteer pyramid, mums and dads and officials and amateur players feeding the machine of the local franchise; hundreds or even thousands of individuals giving up their time as part of a mechanism that gives the first team a supply of players, supporters and sponsors.

And when it is time for the best of the best to be paid, the largest proportion of the stars’ pay packets comes from media rights. They make their money back, amusing viewers and acting as mobile billboards for corporations big and small.

To the media, this is programming and the players are subject to the same rules and levels of public interest as reality TV stars and other celebrities.

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Star power is the fuel of professional sports; you’re good at one thing but you have to become competent at a whole heap of others quickly if you ware to make the most of your short window of opportunity in the spotlight.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, right? As a club if you want central funding and the sponsorship and merch sales, you answer to hundreds of thousands who consider themselves stakeholders. If you’re a player and you want to buy your parents a house and drive a nice car, you are also subject to standards that would otherwise apply to someone voted into public office.

But what happens if there is a short circuit somewhere along the line in this global churn? What happens if a team and its players get the money and the fans and sponsors but somehow escapes being subject to the scrutiny?

The answer: you get Catalans Dragons.

Israel Folau runs onto the field underneath a rainbow

Israel Folau has signed with Catalans. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Isolated by geography and language, and with enough function rooms at Stade Gilbert Brutus to seat more corporates than any other club in Super League, the Dragons gave new meaning to the term ‘tone deaf’ last week by signing Israel Folau.

It was a decision so unpopular that a couple of their fellow clubs threatened to sue if they lost a single sponsor from it.

But here’s the thing: Catalans won’t lose too many sponsors from it. The bad press is in English, a long way away from idyllic Perpignan where Todd Carney postulated in his recent biography that big-name NRL players can get away with most things.

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Formed in 2000, Catalans needed to be successful from the off – signing everyone from Steve Menzies to Stacey Jones – and they weren’t.

The predicted benefits for the French national team have not come to fruition because the side has been full of foreigners.

Yet when the Dragons won the Challenge Cup final two years ago, there were those involved in the club who argued that should have been a line in the sand; that it was time to invest in the future rather than rely on Antipodeans at the end of their careers.

Catalans Dragons win the Challenge Cup.

Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

Catalans has been a dumping ground for just about every player who has fallen foul of the NRL, the law, the public, the Australian media, for as long as most of us can remember.

The national French media doesn’t cover them – their home games aren’t even on TV anymore – while the north of England tsk-tsking over Folau is so far away as to be inaudible.

Still the euros keep rolling in. Most sports franchises would envy this having of cake and eating too.

There’s one problem though.

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That lack of urgency, scrutiny, a publicly-enforced moral compass and all that stuff that allows them to sign Folau? Those are the same missing elements that result in them losing year after year after year.

Looking at their rosters, you’d call them chronic under-achievers.

If it doesn’t matter who you have in your club, it doesn’t matter whether you win either.

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It’s an épée à double tranchant.