THE BIG ISSUE: #60

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

EVERY year, around this time, a column like this appears that critiques the NRL finals format.

This year, the concerns are not on the field. Sydney Roosters and South Sydney have been the best sides all year and they are facing opposition this weekend in the preliminary finals that most people expect them to beat.

Instead, the concerns lie over the advertising hoardings and in the crowds. One, the attendance figures are not deemed expensive enough and two, the pricing structures are deemed unfair.

When it comes to crowds, our glasses are not so much rose-coloured as opaque, fire engine red. The late eighties are perceived as being our salad days, with Tina Turner, the Green Machine et al. A midweek play-off in 1989 for fifth spot failed to attract 10,000 fans and the turnouts for the following weekend were 18,186 and 29,508.

We now have four games on that first weekend, obviously meaning a greater aggregate crowd and higher gate receipts – but also greater running costs.

When Souths played Balmain in week two, the crowd was 40,000 but when the bunnies took on Canberra for a grand final spot, it dropped to 31,469.

Generally speaking, average crowds across an entire rugby league season did not hit five figures until this century. Crowds in the various “golden ages” of the premiership were actually not that lustrous.

Back then we were competing with our own past and attendances were compared within rugby league. These days, we compare ourselves with other sports – the NRL is a competitive entity.

What about ticket prices? Selling blocks of seats through outside agencies is a trick rock promoters have been using for years. Sometimes a wad of tickets will be sold to a scalper before they go on sale to the general public, to test the market and bring in a bit of capital. Imagine if the NRL did that!

Big Issue does have a point here.

David Smith was on the Financial Review Sunday spruiking a “record surplus” of the NRL this year. He’s made some smart moves, like buying or touch football, and we hear there’ll be more “buying back the farm” in future weeks.

But as someone who is a merchant banker, they are his terms of reference. He wants a surplus. If it goes back into game development and not to shareholders, that’s fine but he’s a CEO with a corporate outlook which is why we have higher grand final ticket prices and differing price scales at the finals intended to maximise profit.

We, on the other hand, come from a different viewpoint.

We see ourselves not as customers of the NRL, but as constituents. Many of us think of the players and officials like we see elected officials – people who survive not just on our money but on our goodwill and the time we invest in working the canteen, washing the jumpers, or even running a tipping comp or maintaining a blog.

We don’t like to be taken for granted.

We think we have more of a say in rugby league than the customers of a bank do. It seems a straightforward argument regarding grand final tickets: charge what the market can support. Many of you don’t agree with that philosophy but … we need to start articulating why.

If a big profit, increased visibility and participation, reduced costs and market domination are the priorities of the NRL, then what are ours’? We can’t argue against things unless we have alternatives of our own.

Tell me what priorities the NRL should have. What “policies” would make you “elect” an administration if you had that power? We’ll put together a fans’ charter in the coming weeks.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #59

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

“A person is intelligent and sensible,” someone remarked to me at the start of the week, ‘but people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.”

The comment, about the fascinating and scary herd mentality we call “mob rules”, came in the wake of the outcry over Cronulla’s seventh-tackle try on Saturday night.

Let’s look at the facts: the referees miscounted. The video referees, who are supposed to help them keep count, didn’t. Cronulla scored a try on the seventh tackle and subsequently won by a margin which meant the try in question – mathematically – determined the result.

A completely different officiating error, this time by the video referee, also ended North Queensland’s season at the same venue last year.

Those are the facts. From there, the Cowboys’ coach throws up, without explicitly supporting, the idea there is a conspiracy that everyone wants a Sydney Roosters v South Sydney grand final. Somehow, in the minds of thousands of people, this becomes fact.

Here’s where this column splits in two.

Strand A goes like this: to even address the suggestion that the NRL is in cahoots with referees and would willingly embarrass themselves and the sport to ensure a team that has been the subject of a drugs investigation all year progresses in the finals is an insult to your intelligence.

That’s the end of Strand A.

Strand B goes like this: Neil Henry is right. The Sydney media does want a Sydney Roosters-South Sydney grand final. The Sydney media, and the television and radio broadcasters, have an audience in mind.

You could argue the news values employed in a Sydney newsroom are just representing the genuine priorities of its audience – or you could contend the motivations are purely cynical and commercial. That’s a debate for another column.

But the referees are a furphy. The real issue is that media outlets are inherently selfish and inward looking and the NRL isn’t doing enough to counter this.

The referees are a furphy but in truth, the NRL IS Sydney- and Brisbane-centric.

Because ratings in those cities are the ones that attract advertisers and raise advertising fees, they are more important to the broadcasters. Magazines know which players and clubs on the cover will sell, and which won’t, as another example.

But the NRL has no control over who is on the front of magazines. It can control when games are played.

It is frankly outrageous that Brisbane Broncos should be on every second Friday night, that Canberra are never on free-to-air television and that Melbourne should have to play in every timeslot possible, being tossed around by broadcasters like a hand grenade with the pin removed.

Brisbane, South Sydney, Parramatta, St George Illawarra, Canterbury, Manly and – thanks mainly to SBW – Sydney Roosters are the pretty girls everyone wants to dance with because they represent dollar signs to broadcasters.

And the NRL is happy to make those damsels dance to the broadcaster’s tune, impacting on the very fairness and parity of their own competition (through scheduling), which becomes collateral damage.

The NRL is really about the size of an American college competition, in terms of reach. Because we have a small market and canibalised ourselves a decade and a half ago, the compromises detailed above have been deemed a necessary evil.

We’re happy to cut corners. Canterbury and Sydney Roosters each got to play at their home grounds in the first week of the finals – but one of them had to share it with another game, and the other didn’t. We have some teams who play in giant stadia and others who go round at suburban parks. One team has a whole country to draw on, another has a cluster of inner-city suburbs.

The NRL is Sydney- and Brisbane-centric because those are the cities that make the cash registers tinkle. But as this column has always said, a professional sport needs to be capitalist to the outside world but intensely socialist internally to succeed.

Until everyone is treated equally, all the time, the dumb, the panicky and the dangerous will always have something to latch onto.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #58

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

SOME people don’t seem to mind being lied to.

When the photo of a woman’s bloodied lip appeared in News Limited Sunday papers, along with the revelation that the person depicted had complained to the Bulldogs in February she had been hit by Ben Barba, the implications seemed to take a long time to dawn on many.

Let’s spell it out (as things stood when we went to press):

· The highest profile player in the NRL was stood down from the start of the season and we weren’t told why;

· A woman complained she had been assaulted by a Canterbury player and the club told neither the NRL or the police;

· The player was arbitrarily allowed to resume playing with the governing body of the competition in the dark over what had occurred;

· The club CEO who presided over all this now holds a senior position at the National Rugby League.

Let’s look at some of the alleged extenuating circumstances. One, Barba may have been in a fragile mental state at the time and making the allegations public would have exacerbated the situation.

Surely he should not have resumed playing until he could deal with the consequences of the allegations. Instead, he resumed playing when he could deal with something that remained a secret. How does that help him?

Two, the privacy of the alleged victim needed to be protected. Well, she is still denying anything happened now – so how would that have been different in February if the claims had been properly dealt with?

Three, that she did not want to go to police. Well, the law of the land and the regulations of the NRL require that such claims be passed onto the police and League Central, regardless.

Todd Greenberg no doubt believes he did the right thing by Barba at the time and if he has to take a fall for it, he’ll have a clear conscience.

But given that the biggest issue in fighting domestic violence (which we stress we are not accusing anybody of) is that it is horrendously under-reported, how can Canterbury promote the Women In League round with a clear conscience?

Hopefully, between me writing this and you reading it, some new evidence has come to light explaining the actions of the club. If not, action against those involved must be swift and harsh.

And if you don’t think a fan has any right to know that a club is covering up alleged misconduct by players, costing it the services of its best player, then I can’t help you.

We’ll just keep working for those of you who believe you do have that right.

NB: Since this story appeared, the Bulldogs have insisted there was no actual complaint from Ainslie Currie. The club has not detailed how apparent her injuries were when she met with club officials, or if there were any injuries.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #57

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

THE great thing about social media is it allows you to gauge the general mood of communities, including the rugby league community.

It’s not a completely accurate gauge. Many people in the rugby league community don’t really like social media that much. So it’s a younger sample, probably urban, etc, etc. I’ve noticed, for instance, more people tweet about what’s on Triple M than the ABC.

Be that as it may, the prevailing mood after the Challenge Cup final at the weekend was embarrassment. As a group of people, we were red-faced.

Here was our game on one of the biggest stages in world sport and what we served up to millions of viewers was a knockon-a-thon. The second half, in particular, was a bumbling mess.

The occasion’s biggest star, Sam Tomkins, wasn’t able to show us much of those sizzling kick returns – mainly because of the slippery surface which made it difficult for anyone to get a good footing.

And although they defended stoutly, Hull hardly looked like scoring as they dropped the ball so often it was if they thought they were playing basketball and doing so was mandatory.

Maybe you didn’t watch that game, so let’s touch on a few more examples. Parramatta being flogged by 60 on free-to air television. Lucky that one wasn’t live on Nine or we might have missed some tries in the commercial breaks.

How about some of the games on Friday TV this year involving lowly teams and big scores? Again, we are embarrassed and want someone to do something so that rugby league puts its best foot forward and shows casual observers it’s as great a spectacle as we know it is.

But in a dodgy Wembley club on Empire Way on Saturday night, I spoke to people who had not been to many, if any, live rugby league games before.

And they couldn’t understand what we were whinging about.

“Lots of action”, “faster than union” and “very entertaining” were expressions I heard from the uninitiated.

We assume our love of the game makes as biased in favour of it – but it also makes us harsher on rugby league in the same way you will quarrel with a relative more readily than a complete stranger.

Rugby league at its worst is still a brutal, skillful, epic game played by very brave, fit men. Rugby league at its worst still better than many, many other sports at their best.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #56

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

DIVING and deliberately conceding penalties. As we head into the finals, these are pressing on-field issues for our game.

Debate about the practice of “staying down” to attract as video review has been around for about a decade. So far, players and coaches publicly decry the act, but below the surface there is a tacit acknowledgement that sometimes it’s necessary.

When Paul Gallen made his “whatever it takes” comment after he attracted a penalty and winked at team-mates, he was hounded into recanting. But just because players don’t openly acknowledge doing something doesn’t mean they have no intention of doing it.

If there is a chance you will get a penalty on video review, I would estimate from watching around 100 games live each year that around half of players would stay on the turf even if they felt well enough to get up.

The deliberate concession of penalties is this year’s equivalent of diving. Whereas in the case of diving, the referee will always say “I’m not a doctor”, the retort for deliberately conceding penalties (I ran an inpromtu Twitter contest to come up with a snappier name for it and the winner was ‘Tandying’) is “I’m not a mind-reader”.

The only way to prove ‘Tandying’ would be to bug a team talk and hear a coach instruct his side to concede penalties when they are under pressure, defending their own line. Melbourne deny doing it, Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson says his club has been treated harshly by referees for over a decade and wants to work on discipline.

At fulltime in the Newcastle-Sydney Roosters game at Hunter Stadium on July 27 – the match directly referred to by Bennett in his media conference last Sunday – Sonny Bill Williams was asked on Triple M by Bill Harrigan if the tricolours had employed the practice.

“I’m not up to scratch with that kind of style, I just get out there and play, bro,” he responded. He then smiled. “I think I know what you’re trying to say, I’m just going to sit on the fence on that one.”

Relying on goodwill to keep these things out of the game is foolhardy. Eventually, everyone will do them and no-one will admit them.

The current interpretation that stops a video referee getting involved unless the incident is worthy of being placed on report should at least stop diving becoming the plague it is in soccer.

In the case of Tandying, the Super League system under which teams are placed under a general warning is worth considering. That aside, there is another simple remedy that’s been around for 30 years.

It’s called the sin bin.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #55

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

THE outrage fans feel when a departing player poses in the jersey of another team really goes to the heart of what it is to support a club – and all the illogical, contradictory emotions that entails.

Personally, I don’t care if Benji Marshall poses in an Auckland Blues jersey or Anthony Mundine blows out the candles on a birthday cake wearing a Brisbane shirt while he’s still playing with St George.

But that’s because I don’t support St George or Wests Tigers.

On the other hand, if someone from MY team (for the record, I don’t really have one these days) was to hold a press conference mid-season and promote a rival side, I’d be hitting the roof.

But I’d have trouble explaining why.

It doesn’t mean the fellow isn’t going to try this weekend. No-one thinks he is going to throw a game, for instance. It’s rare that one club’s jersey sponsor is in direct competition with yours’.

He’s probably on a day off, he hasn’t skived off training. He isn’t saying his new team is better than his old team, it’s just where he’s going next year and the club want him to tell everyone, to make the sponsors happy.

It isn’t really a betrayal in any real sense of the word. No-one is dying. No-one’s interests are REALLY being hurt.

Jerry Seinfeld put it best when he said: “Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify because the players are always changing, the team can move to another city.

phonto (1)“You’re actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it. You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city.

“Fans will be so in love with the player but if he goes to another team, they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt! They hate him now!

“Boo! Different shirt! Boo!”

Which brings us to this: if Sonny Bill Williams joins Marshall in rugby union next year, but both go to the World Cup, will that be a bad look for our game? Will two New Zealand rugby union franchises be using our showpiece to promote their code?

Of course not. Because we see Super Rugby as being bigger than our World Cup and we consider ourselves lucky to have them.

So maybe that’s where all this indignation about players promoting their next destination comes from: insecurity.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #54

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

IN most areas, the NRL follows the trends of other professional sporting competitions that are more advanced in terms of commercial success.

But we should pause for deep thought before we follow their leads when it comes to sacking coaches.

“We don’t want to get to the point where the EPL is, where if you lose three games in a row, you’re gone,” sacked North Queensland coach Neil Henry said on the ABC on Sunday.

“That’s just a bad environment for everybody.”

On the surface, sacking the coach of an under-performing team is justifiable. The coach usually plays a big role in recruitment. He devises tactics. He picks the team each week. He determines the public image of the club more than anyone else with his (at least) weekly media conferences.

There’s just one problem though. Recent evidence indicates sacking the coach makes very little difference to results.

Under Stephen Kearney and Brad Arthur in 2012, Parramatta won six games and lost 18. Under Ricky Stuart in 2013, they’ve won three and lost 15.

Under Tim Sheens in 2012, Wests Tigers won 11 games and lost 13. This year under Michael Potter, they’ve won six and lost 12.

People on both sides of the decision to sack a coach – and those in the middle, the players – will tell you rugby league is a “results-driven business”. But recent evidence suggests results don’t benefit from sacking a coach.

phonto (1)And if it really is a results-driven business, then it shouldn’t matter if the coach “loses the dressing room” or isn’t talking to the chief executive or doesn’t get on with sponsors. If you’re sacking a coach to improve results, then the figures above indicate you just shouldn’t sack him.

Perhaps the answer is what has happened at Parramatta and Penrith this year – significant and painful cleanouts of playing staff; paring things back to a best-case scenario even if you end up like the Eels and can only afford a fulltime squad of 21 players the following season.

Even if you’re paying multiple ex-players to play against you for rival clubs.

Or maybe it’s what Mal Meninga suggested at the weekend; giving the man who has a contract some more help.

If Neil Henry is willing to accept an assistant coach’s job at another club – as he said he would in that ABC interview we did on Sunday – then who’s to say Trent Barrett, Paul Green, Nathan Brown, Justin Morgan and the rest wouldn’t be willing to assist HIM?

Or who is to say Henry wouldn’t accept a demotion at his own club to assist one of THEM? It would certainly save him the hassle of picking up his family and moving interstate. Has anyone asked him?

Perhaps what we really need to do in order to get results is take the ego out of coaching and of coaching appointments. It’s an old saying – put to good use by Meninga for the last eight years – that performances improve when no-one cares who gets the credit.

Instead of hiring one of the many on their long list of candidates, the Cowboys could effectively offer them all a job and then work out who is in charge. Won’t work, you say? It works for Meninga.

How is it good business to pay someone to do nothing? The money you are paying someone to sit on their backside could be much more constructively spent paying someone to help them while they continue to come to work.

The thing you are paying for when you sack a coach today is his replacement’s vision; the football nous to come in and make changes and employ a program that will eventually bring you success.

And that’s OK if the man in question has been around long enough to HAVE a program, have a system, have a philosophy. But many of the people being discussed as replacements for Neil Henry are ex-players with limited coaching experience.

Having the previous coach on staff, it would appear, would only help them.

Everyone says South Sydney’s success is largely down to Michael Maguire but what is overlooked is that John Lang did not want the job last year. He was always leaving at the end of 2011. Similarly, Trent Robinson had done an apprenticeship under the man he replaced, Brian Smith.

This sort of professional, dispassionate succession plan soothes players, allows recruiters and agents to plan and takes the drama and pain out of coaching upheavals.

Yet there are rumblings Wests Tigers have at least discussed making the same mistake again – paying out another coach without even knowing who is going replace him.

Why is it that coaches and players are expected to learn from their mistakes but clubs are expected not to? Sacking a coach is not “doing something”, it’s just being seen to do something

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK