It’s traditional of this column to start each year with a state of the league address and since this will be the final piece before it moves to another platform, it’s fitting that we do so this week.
Rugby league finds itself in a better position globally right now than at any other time when I’ve sat down to do this annual round-up – but there is a massive looming challenge in the form of falling TV rights contracts, for which no sport is properly prepared.
The NRL continues to return massive numbers in terms of commercial income, memberships, TV ratings and exposure.
It has prepared pretty well for the TV rights apocalypse, spending a fortune on an in-house digital unit that is already pumping out bespoke content and standing up to traditional media outlets trying to bully it.
The NRL remains insular. Its new chairman derided the idea of a team in one of only a handful of decent-sized cities in Australia and then the fact crowds were disappointing for a nines tournament in that same city a few weeks later was proffered as a reason he was right.
Chicken, meet egg.
But in many ways, the NRL is going down the track of the NFL in that everyone knows the owners don’t want to share the bounty and expansion is no longer seen as being in the interests of the sport but rather as a way to extort more money out of local authorities.
If a new city is to be annexed in the NFL, then an existing franchise has to move there, so the pie is not cut any smaller.
A reduction in TV monies could lead to some belt-tightening, but it would not bomb the game back to the Stone Age. There is enough financial fat for it to live off through a short commercial winter.
The English game is rather more fragile, with the television contract to expire after the 2021 World Cup – which is arguably a more utopian environment than the NRL, since its administrators currently don’t have to worry about annoying variables like players and matches.
This year, Super League has put a confident step forward with new branding and a couple of new TV shows as London depart and Toronto enter. Sonny Bill Williams and Israel Folau have given the competition publicity – good and bad – and crowds for the opening three weeks have been good.
Games not available to English audiences will be shown in Australia this year (full disclosure, it’s a company in which I am a partner that’s doing this).
Super League’s estranged parent, the Rugby Football League, has also leapt into the streaming age with multiple games shown each weekend. Both bodies have upped their games digitally.
But if the game in Australia has an underground bunker in preparation for the TV rights A-bomb, the British game is huddling in an outhouse.
Lower-division clubs know their funding will be cut according to a pre-determined matrix in 2022.
There is a clear picture of how rationalisation and future profitability looks – one professional division, same teams every year – but tradition and an antiquated structure make it almost impossible to achieve.
North American expansion is showing no real signs of presenting the rivers of gold that were anticipated. The Wolfpack are struggling to compete, proposed teams in New York and Ottawa appear firmly on the back burner.
Promotion and relegation seems increasingly unfit for purpose but the Super League organisation is, effectively, the Super League clubs. The old turkeys going to the polls for the Christmas referendum comes to mind repeatedly.
Yet the World Cup, with its £25 million government funding, is the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a chance for transformational change for the game.
The international game is the area where the TV rights should have the smallest impact because the IRL don’t get much TV money anyway.
With Australia beaten by a new international opponent for the first time in 68 years in 2019, the IRL is almost a blank canvas. It has no significant commercial partners yet, no overarching TV deal, no regular competitions aside from the World Cup, and the brand new World Cup Nines.
But with three new independent directors boasting impressive pedigrees, it is well placed to make moves in all of these areas. There is considerable work being done behind the scenes in the nines space as well and the IRL as a whole is open to private investment.
Its biggest hurdle is the availability of NRL players but then again, it needs to learn to cash in on the intellectual property of national teams without needing those players. In many markets the IRL seeks to exploit, no-one knows an NRL player anyway.
If you have a sport that is already on television weekly in wealthy markets and you can confer upon a team the right to call itself England, Australia, France and the United States, you should find a way to make money – even if the people wearing the jerseys in the first half of this sentence aren’t the same as those wearing in the them in the second.
Another challenge for the sport worldwide is participation. As a collision sport, rugby league will always be a no-no for a large portion of the population and that portion is probably increasing.
But the rise of the women’s game, the wheelchair game, tag and touch are helping change perceptions. We are not far from rugby league being better known in some of its newer frontiers as a women’s sport first.
The old prejudices of a ‘flat caps and whippets’ northern game, or a ‘boofhead westies’ pursuit have no relevance in Nuku’alofa or Vancouver and there’s no reason they should ever have any.
Many of the old power bases in the game are gone, with just a handful of the ageing Machiavellian figures still tugging at strings but with their influence deprecating year upon year.
If it can better negotiate with governments and big business, with those who used it for their own ends dead or dying, and become a grown up sport on the world stage without insecurity or arrogance, rugby league can finally emerge from what will one day be judged a period of adolescence.