Talking Television

Filed in Other by on December 9, 2010

The current NRL television deal is good. This new covenant was such a marked improvement on previous deals that it is preposterous to be overly critical of it, considering the weak negotiating base the code started from. The current deal is, however, far from great and relative to other football codes in this country, the game has undersold itself.

When the time comes to negotiate a new deal in 2012, it is imperative that the NRL improves upon the current deal to ensure that the code remains one of the two relevant winter games in this country. The NRL must take the opportunity to reap its just rewards and ensure that the full value of the sport, or at the very least something in the vicinity of its proper value, is realised in the terms of the next deal. Rugby league needs a strong television deal to continue its ascendancy. Television is the number one revenue stream for rugby league.

Perhaps it is only the history of rugby league signing on to such sickeningly pitiful television deals that has led to my somewhat cordial position on the current television deal. In the days when Arthuson and Quayle fronted the league, a time when rugby league was virtually run into the ground in order to protect and benefit certain individuals and clubs, rugby league received virtually nothing. Channel Nine was essentially handed the game without charge in order to gain the good graces of Kerry Packer. It was the ineptitude and inertia of Arthurson and Quayle, their failure to put free-to-air rugby league television rights to the market (rather than just hand the game over to their old pal Packer) as well as their refusal to suitably deal with the new medium of pay television, which led directly to the Super League war. That statement is indisputable. Murdoch was a lifelong nemesis of Packer and the NSWRL/ARL blindly appeased Packer to the detriment of the game.

Those who remember the television coverage from those days recall how poorly the sport of rugby league and its fans were treated due entirely to the one-sided deal signed off on by Arthurson and Quayle. The only live game shown in rugby league heartland was the Saturday afternoon match, aired on the ABC. Nine gave us a delayed Friday night game, a game that nearly always started late due to the overrun of Burke’s Backyard, and a delayed Sunday afternoon game. And that was at best. There was even a time where the Sunday game was compressed into a one hour package, slotted in between the news and Sixty Minutes. Semi-finals were shown on delay, if at all. The greatest comeback of all time, the Bulldogs 1998 semi-final win over Parramatta known forever as the Paul Cariage Game, was heard by most on radio thanks to Nine’s refusal to show the game live.

Much of this mediocre free-to-air coverage went on well into this century. Historically, Nine has dictated terms on how rugby league is covered while paying virtually nothing to the game. These days, the tale is much the same, though the contribution of Nine is somewhat more considerate, with the annual contribution rising from $13 million to $40 million when the last deal was settled. The coverage has also improved markedly with Nine now covering three games a week, including showing the first Friday night game live. Semi-finals are now shown live as well, which is a significant improvement on how the game was covered up to only a few seasons ago.

There are, however, a number of issues that NRL bosses need to address in the next deal. Money, of course, is one. The NRL earns less than the AFL in terms of monies received from free-to-air coverage, despite the fact it consistently rates higher. David Gallop argued that the reason for this is that the AFL has a larger footprint. In terms of Australia’s five major cities, Gallop is technically correct. Sydney and Brisbane are rugby league strongholds with some marginal support for AFL. Melbourne is the home of AFL that has a teaspoon of rugby league interest while Perth and Adelaide are solely AFL towns. But the analysis should not end there. The next five largest Australian markets, with a combined population of just over two million people, are all rugby league strongholds. Four of these cities- the Gold Coast, Newcastle, Canberra-Queanbeyan and Wollongong- all have NRL teams while the Sunshine Coast is indisputably a rugby league locale. The NRL needs to ensure their footprint is adequately recognised in the next television deal and ensure they are recompensed accordingly. David Gallop needs to put rugby league in a position of strength. Defending the current deal by denigrating the code’s widespread appeal while simultaneously bolstering the code’s only legitimate rival, serves exclusively to give the NRL a weaker bargaining position at future negotiations.

And at this point it should be recognised that the AFL is the only legitimate rival of the NRL. Comparisons with both rugby and soccer are almost as ridiculous as concerns about the threat they pose to the current world order. Rugby union is virtually dead in this country. The code is quite rightfully perceived as a dull and lifeless spectacle. There is very little free-to-air coverage of the “sport” and what little coverage there is doesn’t rate. It has been a sharp descent from the boom days early in the decade and rugby union should be viewed as no more of a competitor to rugby league than netball or basketball. Soccer is also no competitor to rugby league in this country. While the sport holds some appeal at a participation level, the sport simply cannot succeed in Australia as a major football code. The sport is inherently capped in the talent it offers with the A-League essentially serving as a feeder league to European clubs. Much like the United States, Australia will never fully support a league that is not regarded as the best in the world. The fact that the game, for the most part, is extraordinarily dull and has no free-to-air coverage only further promotes the notion that soccer is nothing but minor league in this country.

The NRL must also account for the subversive tactics employed by Nine when the last AFL television deal was negotiated, where Kerry Packer managed to push the price up to such an extent that he effectively eliminated all competition in the NRL deal. Such tactics ensured the true market value of rugby league was never realised as both Seven and Ten had few funds to compete with Nine for league rights, having invested so heavily in the AFL.

It is also imperative that the NRL attempts to garner greater national coverage of the code from the channel that acquires free-to-air rights. At present, Nine pushes the AFL heavily in New South Wales and Queensland through the AFL Footy Show, which is shown live on Nine HD in rugby league heartland, and Footy Classifieds. Rugby league is not afforded the same presence in AFL dominated territories, despite the fact Nine holds the rights to rugby league while having no coverage of AFL matches. The reason for this is purely financial. Nine is well aware that if they maintain the myth that rugby league has no appeal outside of New South Wales and Queensland then they can again pay under the odds for the free-to-air rights. The NRL needs to build on its current agreement by forcing the hand of the free-to-air rights winner, explicitly stating that they expect, at the very least, reciprocal treatment in the southern states that AFL is given up north.

It is also important that the NRL takes control of match scheduling. There is no issue with Nine having first choice of games. The issue comes in September, when Nine attempts to push night matches down our throats, despite the pleas of most for day fixtures and a general agreement that day matches produce more attractive rugby league. It is an absolute necessity that the NRL recognise its own strength and ensure that the Grand Final and a fair portion of the remainder of the finals series are played in the afternoon. The NRL should not be bullied into unpopular scheduling decisions by Nine any longer.

The pay television deal with Fox Sports is also a deal that falls into the category of good without being great. And the simple fact remains that it most likely won’t improve anytime soon. The reasons are as grey and murky as a heavy winter sky but are certainly related to News Limited’s 50% stake in the NRL, 50% stake in Fox Sports and 25% stake in Foxtel. Those who do the bidding of News Limited also do the bidding of Fox Sports and the result is a certain degree of coziness, where the NRL is underpaid by Fox Sports to ensure the real winner is News Limited. That is what happens when the buyer is also the seller. Roy Masters noted in a piece in early 2007 that Fox pays only $336,000 per game compared to the $568,000 the company pays for an AFL contest. When adjusted to include the money the NRL receives from Sky New Zealand and the additional contra the AFL receives from Fox, those numbers rise to $432,000 and $717,045 respectively. As a raw figure, that is a considerable deal for rugby league. It is certainly a major improvement on the tragic days of the nineties and it is a revenue stream that would not have existed if Arthurson, Quayle and Packer had their way. News has certainly not sought to rape the game like Nine did once upon a time. When ratings are considered, however, there is no doubt that the NRL is being underpaid by Fox Sports for its pay television rights. In 2006, the NRL had 73 of the top 100 rated pay television programs and 8 of the top 10. The numbers last year were similar. By contrast, the AFL has only a few games in the lower bands. The disparity in worth and actual payment is as gaping as Willie Mason’s mouth or Mark Gasnier’s ass. It is crucial that the ARL, the other owner of the NRL, ensures Fox Sports recognise the ratings rugby league garners and pays accordingly.

I am not going to lynch David Gallop for the last deal he signed off on. He had very little to work with. A history of underselling by rugby league bosses has ensured he was dealt a very weak hand. The next time around, however, Gallop will have plenty more chips and a far stronger hand. He needs to go for the throat and ensure rugby league is paid appropriately. In the meantime, he needs to avoid falling into a defensive mode and play up the strengths of the game. Only then will the NRL receive anywhere near its true value from television networks who will seek to pay the lowest amount possible.

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