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What really is News Corp's rugby end game?

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Expert
6th April, 2020
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There has been exactly zero subtlety about News Corp’s approach to the current round of Australian rugby broadcast rights, but the length and breadth of their concerted assault genuinely fascinates me.

The fascination will have to wait, because the biggest question I have in all this is a simple one.

What is their end game?

And when (if) they get there, then what?

Of course, it’s all to do with content, and Fox Sports’ desperate need for it balanced with an increasingly dire market and changing viewing habits from those who pay for it.

That’s been a long time coming. Long after the smiles disappeared and the backslapping stopped after celebrating their part in eye-watering, record-breaking, billion-dollar deals for Australian rules football, cricket and rugby league, the alarm bells started ringing in Fox Sports’ accounts section.

Tom Banks of the Wallabies runs the ball

What does Fox Sports’ conduct mean for the sport of rugby in Australia? (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Costs needed to be cut, and cut they were. Last June, the first wave of major culls saw the heart ripped out of the behind-the-camera areas, with a host of quality producers and directors shown the door, with rugby and football particularly hard hit.

Popular commentator Sean Maloney was a victim at this time, too.

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Strangely, the sports where the big spending – and particularly the big over-spending – had been rampant were largely unaffected. The smaller ones lost more analysis and pre-game programming, but tenuously themed rugby league and Aussie rules show carried on in the name of light entertainment.

Late last year, Fox Sports allowed rugby.com.au to live stream every game of the National Rugby Championship (during the Rugby World Cup, admittedly) despite holding the digital rights and being very protective of them in the past.

Come the start the Super Rugby season – merely days before, in fact – Nick McArdle was declared excess to requirements amid even more cost-cutting. Other commentators have had their roles greatly reduced as well.

Certainly, in the rugby space, already slim operations were being trimmed ever further, and as Fox Sports’ exclusive negotiating period came and went, the tactics became very obvious.

Despite being the competition’s sole broadcaster since the advent of Super 12 back in 1996, the rumours of competitive tension saw News Corp take up the cause on Fox Sports’ behalf.

Raelene Castle

(AAP Image/Daniel Munoz)

Commentator after commentator picked up the baton as News did their best to strong-arm the value of the rights down, hoping to secure the content they still needed at the lowest price they could get away with while they were the only bidder allowed at the table.

Confident taking their rights to open tender would see the rumoured competitive tension result in actual competition, Rugby Australia rejected Fox Sports’ offer. But of course, with the coronavirus pandemic impacting Australia at alarming rates and professional sport grinding to a halt with the rest of society, that tender process remains on hold – like every other activity in the RA offices.

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Though they didn’t miss the chance to voice their annoyance at Fox Sports being forced to an open tender process, News actually seemed to ease off for a period.

Even news of outgoing chairman Cameron Clyne’s decision to depart the role prior to the RA AGM came and went. Discussion around the likely replacement board members was also largely uneventful, with the possible exception of Canberra, where concerns were rightly raised as to their representation at the boardroom table should former Wallabies and Brumbies great Joe Roff be overlooked (which he was).

That all changed once the board changes were ratified at the AGM. What had already looked like a campaign was suddenly much more concerted, and with new writers and commentators enlisted.

Critics of the $9.4M loss for 2019 overlooked the $9.8M loss in 2015, the last World Cup-affected season. The internal 72 per cent pass mark was derided with no detail given on how it was scored, or why that was bad, or even why it couldn’t possibly be right.

The Stephen Larkham sacking as Wallabies assistant coach, previously laying solely at the feet of Michael Cheika, was repurposed into the “growing pressure” that News Corp was quoting from its own reports to build its case against Raelene Castle.

I’ve said in recent days that I’m open-minded about Phil Kearns as a CEO and I was when he was beaten to the role by Castle last time around, too. And there’s no doubt his business experience is being understated in much of the criticism toward him, just as his sport administration experience is being overstated in support of him.

Former Australian Rugby Union player Phil Kearns.

Phil Kearns. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

It’s clear the new board members coming in have been seized upon as the opportunity to enact change in the way the game is run in Australia, but two very key elements have been missing amid all the calls of change.

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For one, if Kearns does get the job, he couldn’t possibly remain a Fox Sports commentator and would almost certainly have to recuse himself from any discussion had, never mind actual decisions made at board level that involves RA’s broadcast partner of two-and-a-half decades.

And for another thing, what are the plans? Exactly what structural changes to the game in Australia will be made?

All that has been mentioned so far is the fanciful idea of withdrawing not just from Super Rugby, but from the SANZAAR partnership entirely, which would only further open up new legal minefields, given contracts are already in place for the next four years that involve Australia being a partner.

The national club concept was mentioned in those same early ‘Castle set to go’ reports late last week, but there is just no way such a concept would bring in anywhere near the same kind of revenue.

“Change takes courage,” I was told in a message on Saturday night from someone right in the middle of all this. And I don’t disagree with that. But aside from a new CEO, what change is desired?

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The latest development is the Nine newspapers (formerly Fairfax) citing sources close to incoming Wallabies coach Dave Rennie, and the possibility he might reassess his future if Castle is toppled.

This would all feel like yet another Australian rugby soap opera if wasn’t going down at the same time the world battles with the biggest health crisis in a century.

Which brings me back to my original question.

If all this goes down the way the News Corp-led charge wants it to, and Castle is replaced, what will we see happen? What is the end goal of this concerted effort to bring about change?

Aside from content, what else do News and Fox Sports get out of all this? How will what they change make rugby in Australian better than what we now have?

For some time now, I’ve wondered if News were just setting all this up so that they might swoop in at the last minute with a late bid that secures the rights for another five years, proclaiming themselves the saviours of Australian rugby?

But if it gets to that point, are rugby fans just supposed to forget about everything that happened to get to that point?

Has News Corp considered the reputational damage this might be doing to Fox Sports as a brand? Will their end game be worth it in the eyes of customers?

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The way this has gone down is disgraceful from so many angles. Yet the level of coordination to keep such a campaign going over a period, and with new elements along the way absolutely fascinates me.

Which yet again proves: these here really are crazy times.