Rugby league in Australia faces an unprecedented challenge as the financial implications of an unfinished 2020 season due to the coronavirus.
The NRL admitted on Monday it will need to slash its own costs by 70 per cent over the second half of the season so as to fulfil its funding commitments to both clubs and players.
This fragile financial state has seen HQ reduce its spend from $76 million to run its administration and operating costs for the first half of the financial year down to just over $20 million for the second half.
These cuts led to a 95 per cent reduction in staffing levels, as well as a 25 per cent cut in executive salaries.
The latest NRL financial report highlighted the unsustainable nature of the administration and operating costs, which ballooned out to $181 million a year, equating to about $493,000 every day.
In the space of two weeks, rugby league has become a raft of stakeholders wanting money that does not exist and blaming each other for the dire financial state the game finds itself in.
Clubs have been left with a distinct lack of confidence in head office, as many face an uncertain future through their different ownership and management structures.
Players are also looking at significant pay cuts to help the survival of the game during this time but much of this will pale into insignificance in comparison to the pain experienced by the majority of Australians.
The next few months will provide time for the NRL to take stock and consider how austerity can bring improvement to a product facing an unclear future.
The capitalist society which has been allowed to fester through decades of greed is showcased through the microcosm of sport and the NRL specifically, which has been propped up by government grants and the public purse.
Fragility and economic uncertainty is what rugby league is now facing, as the best of sport – rather than residing in money – actually exists through people.
People and communities are the foundation of sport. The NRL’s roots lie in the working-class suburbs, which is still represented through its 16 clubs.
Whether this is a sustainable model only time will tell, but one thing is becoming apparent, as journalist Malcolm Knox surmised, “Outrageous wealth in sport wasn’t a permanent state, it was a moment in time.”
Professional athlete is still a relatively new term in Australia’s football codes, which only exploded 25 years ago with the rise of pay television – and these lucrative broadcast deals will need to be renegotiated and scaled back.
The return of part-time sportsman with real jobs is maybe what is needed in a society which needs to cleanse itself of this consumerist mentality. The raw talent and passion which has somewhat been lost under the sponsorship dollar and huge contracts needs to be rediscovered if the NRL or any of the codes are going to truly move forward into a brave new world.
Money evaporates but people stay on. The economic fragility of our world is been put into full focus through this virus as governments struggle to balance the economic loss with the human loss. Our disconnection from each other has needed a pandemic to make us stop and consider what is important.
The NRL’s belief that they were doing something good for morale by playing on through the crisis was driven by self-interest and the economic benefits of television money.
Whatever last dollars the NRL was hoping to squeeze out of their broadcasters was lost in the goodwill of a suffering community.
The NRL must now face the reality that the game may be changed forever – if it does recover. This is not necessarily bad news though, as sport – like life – must move on and nothing is sacred to change.
As for the NRL re-emerging and forging a new legacy, the hope for that future lies in people.