Late last year I wrote a story about how, in light of a more hopeful future for Australian rugby, the media should concentrate more on the game and less on the corporate machinations behind it.
This was because the corporate stuff is boring, negative and risks undermining our game. A lot of sports opinion writers, journalists and supporters commenting online clearly drew the same conclusion, because the writing that I have seen at the beginning of this season both here on The Roar and elsewhere has been excellent. It has been the sort of positive and fun, but not sycophantic, news and analysis that sports writing should be about.
However, I am going to break my own rule about commenting on corporate matters in this instance, but ultimately to reinforce the point. This is because – as has become predictable at the beginning of the Super Rugby season – a stakeholder who isn’t getting what they want has thrown a public bomb to try to hold Rugby Australia to ransom by derailing the positive experience for supporters.
This season it is the turn of Foxtel to be the February rugby Grinch. They are not happy with Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle driving a harder bargain for a new media rights deal than they are used to.
Foxtel has just announced through its associated News Corp Australia media outlets that it is withdrawing from contract negotiations with Rugby Australia, ending a 25-year commercial relationship for media rights with the code.
I predict that this announcement will be accompanied by a barrage of self-serving vitriol through spear-throwers in News Corp publications, about how Castle and her associates will be the death of rugby in Australia and must go.
I also reckon Foxtel is bluffing, hoping to get Rugby Australia and its member unions to dump Castle and cave to Foxtel’s demands. Rupert Murdoch didn’t make his fortune by paying more than he had to for things.
Castle and the rest of the Rugby Australia board are quite right to test the market for better offers, because the worst they are likely to get is the same offer as they would have from Foxtel in the first place. This means that, despite the panic that Foxtel will attempt to spread, Rugby Australia does not appear to face a significant downside risk from Castle’s approach.
In looking for a better deal, I hope that Rugby Australia does not just chase the most money and instead looks for a balance between the necessary revenue and other benefits. Substantial free-to-air coverage to grow our game should be right at the top of the list. Foxtel’s exit from negotiations surely represents a massive opportunity to secure this holy grail of Australian rugby.
I also hope Rugby Australia looks at a way to bring the Western Force back into the Super Rugby fold, now that the Sunwolves have left the tournament. I do not doubt that chairman Cameron Clyne sincerely thought that he was doing the right thing when he led the decision to remove the Force from Rugby Australia, but I would hope that in his last few months he can see that the West Australians have done a wonderful job in supporting and building their Global Rapid Rugby tournament.
As the football code where Australia gets the most international exposure, rugby should as far as possible represent the whole of Australia and I hope from 2021 it does so again.
So the best thing that fans and the non-News Corp media can do during the likely onslaught of negativity from News Corp is to ignore it and continue to enjoy and support Aussie rugby. The more we do that, the more attractive a financial prospect the game will be to another potential media organisation and the better deal Rugby Australia is likely to get.
That would be the best outcome for our game and all of us.