I’ve been drafting this column in one way or another for a few months now, but the events of the last 24 hours have helped to crystallise things.
When the NRL free-to-air rights deal comes back up for negotiation, if not sooner, the game should walk away from the Nine Network.
The network’s parent company, Nine Entertainment, is patently terrified of facing life without rugby league and is making desperate moves to try and drive the price down or open the door to renegotiate their current deal, which runs until the end of the 2022 season.
In an unattributed statement reminiscent of good old clickbait trash written by ‘staff writers’, Nine Entertainment thrashed the NRL. “At Nine we had hoped to work with the NRL on a solution to the issues facing rugby league in 2020, brought on so starkly by COVID-19,” it began.
“But this health crisis in our community has highlighted the mismanagement of the code over many years. Nine has invested hundreds of millions in this game over decades and we now find they have profoundly wasted those funds with very little to fall back on.
“In the past the NRL have had problems and we’ve bailed them out many times including a $50m loan to support clubs when the last contract was signed. It would now appear that much of that has been squandered by a bloated head office completely ignoring the needs of the clubs, players and supporters.
“We now find ourselves with a contract that is unfulfilled by the code. We hoped we could talk through a long-term plan.”
All’s fair in love and sports broadcasting. Business is business. Nine have to do what they can to reduce potential costs. But what does this rant have to do with broadcasting rugby league?
The reason the contract is unfulfilled is that the league, like every other sports league outside of Belarus and Tajikistan, was forced into recess by the coronavirus pandemic.
If the NRL didn’t make their own decision to stop playing, you can be damn sure it would have been made for them.
The “long-term plan” spoken of is a renegotiation of the reported $925 million free-to-air arrangement signed in 2015.
The NRL lived up to its part of the deal, supplying a consistently entertaining, high-quality product that delivered the highest ratings of any sport in Australia.
With television’s number and the centrepiece of State of Origin, Nine should have been able to turn their investment into monumental advertising returns.
The anonymous and cowardly hissy fit was supposed to spook the NRL into taking whatever deal they were offered, a power move from a powerless base.
Nine have already made public noises about the NRL product losing its value being played in empty stadiums as well as a delayed season running beyond October into the T20 World Cup during November.
It’s all about cash, baby. Nine Entertainment had already declared they stood to save $130 million if the NRL was out of action for the rest of the 2020 season. If they can’t get a product on the screen, they want out of the current NRL deal and they want out now.
But outside of providing a broadcast outlet, it’s not clear if Channel Nine has given anything of value back to rugby league. Viewers are saddled with poor commentary loaded with tedious agendas, the same faces saying the same things to more of the same faces, absolutely zero appetite or action to grow the game and its audience outside of Queensland or New South Wales and almost zero broadcast innovations.
Australian Rugby League Commission chair Peter V’landys played a straight bat – on Channel Nine, no less – later in the day, saying, “If there’s been miscommunication and Channel Nine feel they haven’t been part of the process, absolutely I apologise.
“There’s no doubt that the cost structure that’s in place for the game at the moment is unsustainable, so that criticism is accurate.”
There’s a school of thought Nine might be self-sabotaging their chances at the negotiation table for the next broadcast rights because they’re in a tight spot and can’t afford to lay out so much cash. I don’t subscribe to that.
Nine is, however, in an incredibly tough situation right now. Forget about the NRL’s broadcast cash, COVID-19 has had an even bigger impact on media organisations’ advertising income. Everyone is haemorrhaging millions and millions of dollars. Jobs and networks are at stake.
It’s fair enough for Nine to complain about not having a seat at the table when the ARLC is trying to work out a way forward, but they hardly ingratiated themselves to the game by cutting off the funding at the first chance, showing public opposition to the idea of the season stretching later into the year and then also criticising plans for a shortened season.
Those aren’t the actions of a true partner of the game.
The NRL should be using this opportunity to retool and reassess, scope out bringing match broadcasts in-house and keeping the digital broadcast rights for itself to set up a subscription service for its own platform.
Call me naive – and many will – but if they can sort out their internal costs and look after the players, the NRL may come out of this COVID-19 induced coma with a stronger negotiating position than it had before shutting the competition down. And Nine Entertainment has been most helpful in accommodating it.
COVID-19 has put a huge check on sports leagues and broadcasters around the globe. Broadcast rights might not revisit the admittedly ridiculous $1.8 billion from Nine and Fox in 2015, but that’s not a scenario unique to this game. Rugby league will persevere like it always has in whatever form it takes.
Rugby league does not need Nine to survive. But if Nine wants a meaningful broadcasting future, they most definitely need rugby league.