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Opinion

Super League revisited: The what-ifs

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2nd October, 2020
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In this final sequence of the look back on the Super League era looking at the events of the period and their consequences, I want to look at what didn’t happen, and how things may have changed. This week, the focus is on the early days of the war.

A summary of each season affected by the war can be found in part six of the series.

What if Murdoch made Packer an offer he couldn’t refuse?
The primary catalyst for the entire war was Rupert Murdoch wanting the ARL subscription rights and Kerry Packer being unwilling to relinquish them, despite Packer not owning a pay-TV platform. Even an exorbitant price to purchase those rights would not have gone close to the money ultimately spent by each side.

Packer, who himself had created a rebel competition in another sport with World Series Cricket, not only would have been able to see the potential revenue from pay-TV but would have been reluctant to dilute the value of his almost exclusive free-to-air coverage on Channel Nine. Money could have offset this, as well as the potential to show more games or highlights packages with every match being professionally filmed and commentated.

Ultimately, Murdoch and Packer were pragmatic businessmen. The fact that at the height of the war, Super League was shown on Channel Nine emphatically demonstrated that fact.

Whether, though, the ARL would have maintained the 20 team competition, as Dwayne discussed below the line earlier in this series, is worth its own article.

What if News Ltd delayed their signing raid?
April Fool’s weekend 1995, shared with Round 4 of the newly expanded ARL competition, was the weekend of the initial signing blitz. It seemed a logical time, with teams spread out across the country and thus isolated. But if the Super League organisers could have waited until the representative season had commenced, they could have monopolised the signing of elite players.

Following the recruitment model of World Series Cricket, it would not have been out of the ordinary for players to have been spoken to one-on-one under the auspices of an exclusive media interview. Said players could have then returned to their clubs, where media attention would have been less focused at that point of the season and spread the word.

Sure, it might have all fallen apart if someone squealed, but the original signings were out in the open after less than 24 hours anyway.

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What if the ARL just kicked out rebel clubs?
As mentioned in part one of this series, immediately following the initial signings, the ARL threatened to expel Canberra, Canterbury, and Cronulla for defecting. Such an action surely would have created concern among the players across the league that, while they could leave the establishment, they wouldn’t have clubs to play for afterwards.

Neutral supporters, given the shock at the time and the nature of the raids, may have sympathised with the ARL and reacquainted themselves with a smaller competition.

However, supporters of the expelled teams would have been disenfranchised, the league would have been sued by the affected clubs, draws and media deals would have had to be rewritten, and phoenix clubs would have emerged ready for the 1996 season. Either way, it would have been a game-changer.

What if Super League paid Alan Jones?
The talkback radio host, who had recently been on the coaching staff of Balmain and Souths, had an audience largely comprising older conservative men, a group who were sceptical of the Super League model and marketing. If he could have put forth an argument about guaranteeing the survival of the code, at risk from archaic business practices, or something along those lines, it could have had a significant impact on the PR battle.

And what makes such a proposition viable? Aside from worshipping the ground that Rupert Murdoch walks on, the cash for comments saga of the late 1990s showed that Jones wasn’t above singing his sponsors’ praises.

Next week: more what-ifs.

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