THE BIG ISSUE: #24

By STEVE MASCORD

THE last week has given Big Issue a unique opportunity to assess the health of our game on both sides of the world.

Last Tuesday, while my colleagues were knee-deep in the new NRL TV deal, Brian McClennan’s sacking, David Gallop’s FFA appointment,Ben Hornby’s retirement and Laurie Daley’s NSW appointment, I was on a jet to London for the Challenge Cup final.

An English official told me outside Wembley on Thursday – at the announcement that five (rather than one) rugby league players would be immortalised in bronze at the stadium – that he thought the NRL TV deal was impressive.

And then he counted the noughts – and was blown away.

The TV deal represents a triumph for the sport but like a battler winning lotto, it also throws up more than its fair share of challenges.

John Grant keeps referring to the game as “the business” but there is a reason rugby league in Australia is run by a commission and not a board – because it’s a not-for-profit organisation that ploughs all the money it makes back into the sport.

For that reason, they are supposed to ask themselves at every turn “is this good for the game?”. One billion dollars plus is definitely good for the game. Night grand finals? I don’t have a problem with them but some people do.

Personally, I just think live sport is a better spectacle under lights.

Lack of expansion is definitely bad for rugby league – but we told you here in Rugby League Week two years ago that consultants LEK had informed the clubs adding teams would not add to their television asking price.

The game didn’t have to expand to make cash so it didn’t – compare that with the AFL’s missionary zeal.

Delayed telecasts are an anachronism, are bad for fans and therefore bad for rugby league. As technology gets better, it will get harder and harder to keep what is happening in a match secret. We know everything the instant it occurs but we are supposed to wait an hour to find out how our favourite footy team is going?

The rest of the world would be laughing at us – if the rest of the world knew or cared about the new NRL TV deal.

Delayed telecasts leave the door open for social media and pirates the way a retreating prop with his back turned invites a nippy attacker to breeze past him. By the end of this deal, Nine might as well be sending us faxes or buzzing our pagers, so ridiculous will delayed coverage seem.

Production-wise, Fox and Nine do a fantastic job for rugby league. They make it look pretty damn awesome. On prima facie evidence, keeping them around is good for rugby league.

Including the Four Nations in the deal: bad for rugby league.

Internationals should be sold by the Rugby League International Federation and the proceeds should go directly to international football. We’ve been talking about this for years – when are we going to get the balls to do it?

That’s the TV deal. Brian McClennan getting sacked was harsh. I’d like to get David Middleton to compile a table of how some of our leading coaches went in their first 24 NRL games in charge – as an Illawarra fan I know Brian Smith didn’t set the world on fire, for instance.

Yet he is still around 30 years later and Brian McClennan was chopped off at the knees – without the club even having a replacement lined up.

The sacking culture is permeating our game. I think it’s wonderful how proud Canberra are of the fact they’ve never sacked a coach. Craig Gower told me last week that players who blame a coach – even in their own heads – are selfish.

We are just encouraging that selfishness by axing our coaches too soon – but unlike delayed telecasts I see this as an irreversible trend. It’s just going to get worse.

Big Issue is disappointed to see David Gallop jump to one of our competitors. I wanted him at Rugby Football League headquarters at Red Hall, Leeds.

Rugby league in the United Kingdom enjoys limitless goodwill and cultural significance for northern families. The way Leeds and Warrington were farewelled by their communities as they made the journey south, as has happened for close to a century, warms the heart.

But the game is also becoming invisible nationally. The announcement that Billy Boston, Martin Offiah, Gus Risman, Eric Ashton and Alex Murphy would be honoured in bronze attracted a very modest media roll-up to Wembley.

Fulltime rugby league writers on the national papers are a thing of the increasingly distant past.  Most Brits would struggle to name a single current rugby league player.

Following the collapse of Crusaders and near-death of Bradford, there must be a major fear – given that TV deal with all those zeros – that England will merely be a finishing school for the NRL.

Many league  people in Britain actually want Sam Tomkins poached by the NRL – because they are certain he’ll go to rugby union otherwise.

Rugby league’s soul will always remain in the northern towns which gave birth to it. If the ARL Commission ask themselves in their contact with the RFL “what’s good for rugby league?” then the answer will be simple.

That is, to involve them  in our boom and give them all the help we can.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

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