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Opinion

As Todd Greenberg exits, what will happen next for the NRL?

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Expert
20th April, 2020
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Was Todd Greenberg a good chief executive officer for the NRL? Does it matter?

When Peter V’landys took the job as Australian Rugby League Commission chairman, Greenberg was cooked – it wouldn’t have mattered if the CEO was Greenberg, Gil McLachlan, Bill Gates or Jesus Christ. V’Landys is not someone who plays well with others.

Now there’s a lot of garbage flying around now as journalists with scores to settle whack away, still wiping tears from their eyes after Greenberg called them “crisis merchants” in 2018.

There’s also a lot of crap being spouted across social media from mouths who obviously have no idea what a chief executive officer does or what’s involved in the operations of a business, they just hated Todd Greenberg ‘cos he was ‘head office’.

I daresay there are a few types like that across the NRL too.

Let’s start assessing his legacy by checking the numbers.

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According to the NRL’s annual reports, on Greenberg’s watch between 2016-2019:
• Non-broadcast revenue grew from $144 million to $204 million, up 41 per cent
• Distribution payments went from $220 million to $317 million, up 44 per cent
• Club memberships rose from 301,809 to 319,375, up around six per cent
• Magic Round was created
• The NRLW and standalone women’s State of Origin were created

There’s also the 2017 collective bargaining agreement between the NRL and the Players’ Association, worth $980 million and including the highest minimum wage, salary cap limit and player payment pool in the game’s history.

The game posted a $45 million surplus in 2018, and a $30 million one in 2019.

Todd Greenberg and Peter V’landys speak to the media.

Todd Greenberg and Peter V’landys (Matt King/Getty Images)

Obviously Greenberg didn’t do all this on his own, but if he’s going to be saddled with the bad, he can be given some credit for the good.

Greenberg was relentlessly belted for ‘poor economic management’, despite feeding NRL clubs more money than ever, which in some cases kept organisations afloat.

But clubs want more, more and more, and that’s a big reason why the game is in the situation it’s in right now after the COVID-19 pandemic came from nowhere.

The NRL’s administrative spend has rightly come under the spotlight at $181 million – the ‘$500,000 a day’ as it has breathlessly been reported.

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It’s a truckload, but to introduce some reality it’s still less spend as percentage of revenue than Cricket Australia and Rugby Australia.

Greenberg and the NRL holding back a reported $10 million in player superannuation was a bad move.

The decision in 2017 to liquidate the game’s $55 million ‘sustainability fund’ to pay for the NRL’s digital platform and split the rest between the 16 clubs is a retrospective disaster, especially if rumours about reducing digital offerings are true.

Total crowds between 2016 and 2019 were down 51,565 or 1.6 per cent, not really worth firing up about but still down.

Buying a $15,000 ring for Cameron Smith’s wife to celebrate his 400th NRL game was a baffling move.

For me, the worst part of Greenberg’s time as CEO was his abject failure to support the game’s referees in the face of media scrutiny during the 2018 ‘rules crackdown’. This cost the game badly and the impacts of his backdown are still being felt and will be for years to come.

George Burgess being placed on report.

Referees have had a hard time in the NRL. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Despite all this, the long and the short of all these numbers is that until the coronavirus knocked sport around the world into a coma, the NRL had never, ever been in a stronger financial position.

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The simple fact is that V’landys and some powerful club figures just didn’t want Greenberg in the way.

V’landys and his fanbois in the News Limited media have got their man. Paul Kent keeps panting frantically on his keyboard, celebrating the chair’s magnificence. Phil Rothfield launched a months-long attack typically supported by zero facts, memorably being slaughtered by Greenberg in an attempted ‘gotcha’ interview about the NRL’s finances.

Channel Nine’s writers and broadcasters toed the line as well, attacking Greenberg at every opportunity.

Possible replacements are being floated, names like Broncos boss Paul White, Melbourne Storm CEO Dave Donaghy, South Sydney CEO Blake Solly, and Simon McGrath from Accor hotels.

All accomplished professionals, all highly motivated and proven achievers. But how would they fit in with V’landys? Why would they want to be such an obvious second fiddle?

Why would they want to take the poisoned chalice that is the role of NRL CEO?

V’landys has made no secret of the intention to cut costs at head office, and it wouldn’t surprise to see the man himself come out of this with an executive chairman role, essentially in full control of the competition and its finances.

Incoming ARLC chairman Peter V’Landys.

(Mark Evans/Getty Images)

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He ruled out becoming executive chairman in the media a couple of weeks ago, around the same time he was saying Greenberg was safe for 2020.

If the Australian Rugby League Commission allows V’landys to become executive chairman, then they should be next to step down. Right now it would be another retrograde step for the competition and the game.

It’s an interesting time. Sports around the globe are scrambling to survive, clubs looking at ways to dump costs like they never have before.

A lot of people are also using the COVID-19 shutdown as a cover to get rid of things they didn’t really want to do in the first place and it looks like NRLW might be in the firing line. The Roosters have said they’ll pull out of the competition, about a year after complaining that running their NRLW team cost too much.

I’ve said before that I really, really hope I’m wrong about the apparent backwards direction the game is taking. When the crisis merchants are happy, that should be setting off alarm bells.

I really want V’landys to be the driver for an NRL that takes on the world and understands the game has the power, not the broadcasters.

Todd Greenberg may have jumped to save his long-term career as an administrator, but rugby league in Australia is left with an uncertain future.