By STEVE MASCORD
IS the salary cap there to protect clubs from bankruptcy – or keep the competition even?
Scorelines of 36-0, 32-0 and 42-10 in the opening two rounds of the 2013 premiership suggest that if it’s the second objective, then it may be failing.
The NRL is reportedly considering drafting players from rival clubs to prop up teams who lose large chunks of their playing staff to drugs suspensions. But if this is aimed at keeping broadcasters happy with competitive games, then the scorelines above suggest there is already reason for TV stations to be dissatisfied
All this would have been idle supposition if not for the fact that the salary cap has changed dramatically this year – and the impact of the changes on the evenness of the league is still guesswork.
Put crudely, it’s gone up from $4.4 million to $5.85 million. But that doesn’t begin to tell the story.
The marquee player allowance – the amount players can be paid directly from a club sponsor – has increased from $300,000 per year to $550,000. This allowance – which comes from clubs and their sponsors and not the NRL – has been steadily deregulated since it was first introduced. It used to be applicable to only three players and they had to be among your highest earners. Now it’s applicable to anyone.
Five cars worth a total of $100,000 can be given to players, too. The minimum wage has increased from $55,000 to $80,000.
Since the season started, the likes of Johnathan Thurston and Robbie Farah are announcing they are staying put. Rugby League Week sought to work out if they would have been forced to move under the previous regime and, if so, what impact the decisions of those and those like them will have on one of the NRL’s biggest strengths – the unpredictability of results.
There’s a theory that if the cap goes up and so does a mechanism like the marquee player allowance, then there will be a “lag time” while everyone catches up. That is, the good teams will be allowed to hold onto good players and the struggling sides will not be able to recruit as readily as they could before.
Player agent George Mimis doesn’t agree. “It doesn’t promote inequality because it is equal by its very nature,” Mimis says.
“If you accept there were inequalities there to start with, then yes, they are allowed to remain.”
But Melbourne Storm football manager Frank Ponissi counters: “There will be a gap between the clubs who can afford to spend up to the maximum on the marquee player allowance and those who can’t.
“I think it’s fantastic that the salary cap’s increasing, the whole combined ability to pay. I think the marquee player allowances has gone too far in comparison to the salary cap.
“I’m not being critical, just cautious. Potentially, for some clubs, they won’t be able to find those marquee players. It’s not easy out there.”
Established players, it would seem, are harder to move from their current club than at any time since the salary cap was given real teeth.
This is a theory Mimis agrees with “absolutely”
“These are the players who drive your business and your brand commercially and who are driving outcomes on the field ,” he says.
“There is definitely a focus on the point end of the player market. If State of Origin players and up are harder to recruit, then that should result in a greater focus on producing quality players from within.
“And that is a good thing.”
It might be a good thing in the long-term but it makes it hard for the clubs without the superstars to compete in the short term. St George Illawarra and Parramatta, for instance, didn’t do much recruiting last summer. Still, the NRL isn’t overly concerned.
“If you look in the strategic plan, it says that we want players to make money,” NRL spokesman John Brady says. “We want them to be adequately rewarded because we want to attract the best juniors to our game.”
One club football manager told us his sponsors didn’t even know which players were getting his club’s marquee player allowance. “The money comes in from the sponsors, it could go on our bottom line or it could go to a marquee player,” he said.
“We have to be careful we don’t spend money that we really need ourselves.”
Other clubs expressed surprise at this arrangement, saying their marquee player sponsors always knew which stars they were supporting.
It’s understood Steggles got so excited about the prospect of Sydney Rooster signing Michael Jennings that they offered to stump up more cash to help snare him.
So, is the parity which has given us nine premiers in 15 years under threat? It seems that depends on the movement of medium-range players between clubs. They are the men who we are now relying on to “even things up”.
From the club’s point of view, says Sydney Roosters recruitment manager Peter O’Sullivan, “that’s where you’re going to get the problem.
“Your $240,000players are going to be asking for $400,000 player and if you don’t give it to them, they WILL leave.
“But if clubs do give it to them, they are going to be stuffed because all their cap will be spent at the top and middle of their squad with nothing at the bottom.”
Mimis argues that players only seem overpriced – that when pay rises are contractually tied to salary cap rises and – in the case of some contracts, even rises in the marquee player allowances – what they are being paid relative to everyone else is actually static.
He says the real gap is between what players are really worth in the current league economy and the old perceptions of coaches, football managers and recruitment managers.
But the benefits of nurturing talent from a young age are evident at Melbourne, who lost Sika Manu to Penrith and Dane Neilsen to the Warriors this season and were able to replace them from within with the likes of Justin O’Neill, Kevin Proctor and Tohu Harris.
Along with saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in these positions by letting Neilson and Manu go, they signed Lagi Setu from a mormon mission on not much more than match payments – with success the key factor in attracting him.
(Ponissi believes one salary cap for a top 30 players, rather than for 25 and then a second tier cap, is the way to go)
Which brings us to the third major trend affecting the competitive parity in the NRL. The first is the MPA keeping players where they are. The second is the increase in spending capacity available to retain medium-earning players, with struggling clubs needing to offer them ‘overs’ and getting themselves into strife as a result.
The third is the increasing hunger for silverware.
Players at all levels within clubs are increasingly impatient when it comes to success, according to those with all manner of involvement in the player market.
The days of someone like Andrew Ettingshausen staying at the same club for an entire career without any trophies are coming to an end.
“There is a strong desire on the part of players – and coaches – to be successful and to go to clubs that are successful,” said Mimis, “and they will move around to that end.
“There is a stronger tendency to climb the ladder – the football ladder and then income ladder – than maybe there was in the past.
“When you talk about loyalty, one-team players are looking more and more like things of the past.”
As the cap continues to rise to $7 million in 2017, will the lag between haves and have-nots (assuming it exists) become more accentuated? Should we have moratoriums on cap rises until everyone has ‘caught up’? Is anyone monitoring the situation?
“Over the next few years, we need to monitor the spending on the MPAs by all clubs so it is even,” says Ponissi.
“We don’t want a situation where clubs that have trouble raising the MPAs due to commercial restrictions don’t use their full quota.”
The $1.025 billion TV deal was supposed to usher in a period of unprecedented prosperity for our game in Australia and New Zealand.
But the salary cap is a delicate ecosystem into which we’ve poured gallons of water and tonnes of feed and fertiliser.
Ask any biologist: the results of doing that are difficult to predict. Our biggest predators may just get bigger and more predatory.
Jurassic Park, anyone?
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK