RUGBY league has taken two important steps over the past fortnight towards realising latent potential – which is what the ARLC was put there to do.
Yet neither decision was actually taken by the commission.
NRL referees coach Daniel Anderson took the first of them, announcing that anyone throwing a punch at the top level would likely be sent to the sin bin from now on.
Many of you disagreed with this edict but it was the reason for it that was most telling. “We need to make sure our game can recruit young kids,” Anderson said. “We’ve got a duty to the community and to people involved in our sport.”
Why, in our sport, do we never talk about participation rates? I’ll answer the question for you: because they’re terrible. We’re in the top three for general popularity but in Australia we are eighth for participation.
Until recently, the women’s game – using an example – got almost no help from the traditional governing bodies. We deliberately kept participation and the NRL at arm’s length, probably because we fair so poorly in the former and were a tad embarrassed.
The choice the game’s administration had to make got down to this: do we have a “don’t try this at home, these are paid professionals” warning before every telecast or do we take ownership of our comparatively poor performance as a participation sport and use the popularity of our stars on television to improve the situation?
As a spectator, you just want to be entertained. So you may not like Anderson’s crackdown. But rugby league has responsibilities that extend beyond entertaining you. That’s why players are held to different standards of behaviour than actors and musicians – because people have given up their time along with way to get them to where they are.
Rugby league in not UFC. There’s no “grassroots” UFC with parents manning the canteen each Saturday morning. Maybe the NRL will lose a few spectators for the Hills District Under 10s to gain a few participants. And perhaps in the first year of a five year TV contract is the best time to make that sacrifice – because the money’s already in our pockets, isn’t it?
Which brings us to the second decision, which wasn’t even made in Australia.
The Rugby League International Federation sold the television rights to the World Cup to International Management Group, guaranteeing a big pay day for the RLIF which will hopefully filter down to the countries who need it most.
IMG’s responsibility then is to make a profit, not help rugby league.
In the case of selling the UK free-to-air rights to the BBC, the game’s interests will be served pretty well anyway given the enormous audiences that deal will deliver.
In the case of selling the pay TV rights in Britain to Premier Sports … maybe not so much, given that the channel is a small start-up with a comparatively tiny audience.
But when it comes to Australia and Channel Seven, the benefits could be enormous.
If reconnecting the grassroots game with the professional sport is crucial, then ramping up international football is absolutely essential for us to make meaningful growth in the years ahead.
With more than 100 NRL stars likely to be playing in the World Cup between October 26 and November 30, this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for colours, concepts and brands of our national teams to be embedded in the minds of rugby league fans and the wider sporting market.
Philosophically, I’ve never agreed with the NRL’s position that sticking with one commercial broadcaster gives you greater support across the board. Nine do a fine job on the NRL but this is a capitalist society and competitive tensions get the best out of everyone.
Unconfirmed reports said one of the reasons for the financial disaster of the 2000 World Cup was that when a rights broker tried to sell the tournament in Australia and New Zealand, the broadcasters there claimed they already owned it through their domestic deals.
Finally, 13 years later, we have got our house in order in that respect. The international game is a position to call its own shots. BIG step forward.
In the cases of both decisions discussed here, certain interest groups had to be snubbed. In Anderson’s case, it was the blood thirsty biff fiends who only tune into Origin for the stinks.
In the case of the World Cup TV rights, it was the network that only wanted to show Australia’s games and, via that stance, suggested rugby league has ideas above its station and is not to be taken seriously as an international sport.
The worst thing about the belief that rugby league only has the biff going for it and will always be a joke internationally is that the game’s administration itself – by its inaction – seemed to actually agree.
Thankfully, belatedly … not any more.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK