THE BIG ISSUE: #51

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

BIG Issue has detected a strange phenomenon over the past eight weeks. While casual sports fans have been frothing at the mouth about Origin, rusted-on rugby league fans have been reacting with similar fervour about Origin’s negative impact on club football.

The fact is, we were all having quite a jolly time before Origin came along, weren’t we?

And, as pointed out elsewhere this week, no sooner did the interstate series start than teams providing many players hit the wall, those providing none or few hit a purple patch and crowds and ratings dropped.

But the reason for these ills is the same as the one that has us unable to watch one Sunday afternoon game live – even on the NRL’s own ipad app – or listen to a Friday night game on radio other than the one that’s on TV.

Or have a Sunday afternoon grand final. That is: money offered to the ARLC by Channel Nine.

The Commission may position itself as aloof from the political and PR demands to which the previous administration was accused of being slave but the expectation of a one billion-plus payday must have created enormous pressure on the new boys and girls last August.

After all, one of the key provisos under which our system of administration changed was that we had been undersold as a television product, partly because the NRL was half-owned by a media company.

And the comparisons with the AFL’s TV contract was going to be a litmus test.

So when Nine gave the ARLC the chance to get over the finish line – providing Origin stayed where it was, Sunday football stayed on delay, other coverage was blacked out to protect their delayed telecasts etc – the carrot was too big and juicy to turn down.

The ARLC got a few better conditions out of the deal, fixed scheduling being one of them. The representative weekend stayed after looking like it was on life support.

Of course Origin should be on weekends. Interstate football was only shunted to midweek in the first place because no-one cared about it. Of course clubs should not be denied access to their own players. On every level, that’s patently ridiculous.

But this is a five year television contact. Trying to somehow negotiate our way out of providing its key components to the broadcaster is fraught with danger.

Our soul is sold. We get it back in 2018.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #50

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD
IT’S coincidental but instructive that we are going to Darwin, Mackay and Perth with NRL games the weekend after matches in Sydney attracted 11,167, 5288 and 6,271.
Yes, it was wet and hostile at ANZ Stadium, Leichhardt Oval and Centrebet Stadium – but they were still poor attendance figures which will be easily eclipsed at the three ‘on the road’ venues this weekend.
On page 30 of this week’s RLW, you’ll read how fixtures will in future “jump out” of the draw as ones which invite relocation, and how the NRL will make the arrangements rather than the individual clubs.
Two of the poor-drawing games above – South Sydney-Canberra and Wests Tigers-Melbourne – fit the bill as potentially average crowd-pullers, although Leichhardt Oval is imbued with such romance people would go there to watch almost anyone play.
Make no mistake, we will get the same outcry about shifting games away from traditional home grounds as we got about the death of the shoulder charge and Origin violence.
But when you hear the bleating about robbing the people of their local team, try to remember how few people there were at times.
When Rupert Murdoch swept into our game in 1995, he – or his people – determined there were too many teams in Sydney. At first, they wanted one or two mega-Sydney teams but when they proved too hard, they recruited a few and left the rest to rot.
If another media mogul was looking to invest in rugby league and checked out last weekend’s games, he would have come to the same conclusion: too many teams in Sydney.
We, of course, now realise it’s not that simple. The popularity, history, brands and emotional connections inspired by the Sydney clubs are just not accurately represented by those who show up each week.
We can have our cake and eat it too – especially with $1.025 billion in the bank.
We can keep the Sydney clubs we cherished as kids and still expand the game and this weekend is showing us how – by taking those clubs to people who appreciate the opportunity to see them in the flesh.
If those people show enough interest, then one day they get a team of their own. That’s how it should work and that’s how it will work under the new stadia policy.
And if American baseball and English premier league soccer want to bring their events to us, then the lesson is clear. To stay afloat in this shrinking world, we also have to take ours’ to them.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #49

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

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

THE BIG ISSUE: #48

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD
NEXT Monday, Gold Coast are going to play Melbourne at Skilled Park. It second versus fifth, a crucial game which should draw a huge crowd.
…except, that is, for one small factor. There will be no Origin players involved.
Big Issue is confident that after this television deal, or the next, this ridiculous situation will be remedied. Let’s face it, Origin is only on during the week because interstate football was once so low key they didn’t want it to interfere with the premiership.
Now, it is so important that we stand players down from the previous round of club games – and still have it in the middle of the week! It doesn’t make sense does it ? Aside from the fact that somewhere along the way, the TV stations discovered a goldmine.
So, at some stage, the game will have enough financial clout and independence to end this split round idea, where the very organisations that pay the players – their clubs – don’t have access to them.
In the meantime, though, what do we do?
The answer may lie in the 16,118 who attended Sunday’s South Sydney-Gold Coast game at Barlow Park in Cairns. That’s more than the Titans get most weeks in Robina.
Sure, the Origin players were on deck but I’d be willing to bet their absence wouldn’t have shaved too many off the gate.
We want split round games to mean more and we want to take more games to provincial areas. Let’s solve both problems with one solution. Around Origin time, all they seem to care about in the big smoke is the interstate battles.
So let’s take our club football to the people who will still care – to places like Mudgee, Cairns and Perth.
It just seems logical.
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STILL in Cairns, it was a touching story on Sunday about how Greg Inglis and Albert Kelly used to play together in the street, using a Coke bottle.
It was a timely reminder that the game we see on TV – in which Inglis and Kelly came face to face to decide a contest – is the same one the kids play.
And that’s what stiffening the rules surrounding fights is all about – reclaiming that link. What if the parents of the next Greg Inglis or Albert Kelly stopped them playing because of the Gallen-Myles fight?
That’s not really hypothetical … odds are, somewhere in Australia, it happened.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #47

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

STATE Of Origin is a con. Our greatest contest is built on a giant hypocrisy whose time is just about up.

This column is not chiefly about whether its author was offended by Paul Gallen stiff-arming, then repeatedly punching, Nate Myles last Wednesday or about whether the incident was bad for the kiddies.

We’ll get to those things in due course anyway.

It’s about the inherent dishonesty of selling tickets, advertising and television rights on the promise of violence and then punishing those tho deliver it.

You talk about the leadership displayed by Paul Gallen last week and I’ll agree – he displayed plenty of it …. on Thursday night when he said if he was going to be suspended for fighting in an Origin, the NRL shouldn’t use footage of it to promote game two.

Last year I asked referees boss Bill Harrigan – on the record – whether Origin was played under a different set of rules. He wouldn’t give me a straight answer.

In these pages, rival captains Gallen and Cameron Smith contended you could get away with more in Origin. No-one in officialdom contradicted them.

Why? Because the cash registers were already ringing. The silence of officials on these issues plays to the bloodlust of fans happy to hand over their cash in the hope of a brawl, a stiff arm or a head butt.

At least in boxing and UFC, you get what you pay for.  They’re not going to suspend someone for hitting someone else. If the rules are different in Origin, spell it out – you can stay on the field after throwing a punch, you can hold down in the tackles longer, you can commit some professional fouls, you can niggle.

Tell us.

What other business would try to sell you something without describing its product? What other multi-million dollar industry is run on a set of rules and regulations that are never written down?  There were some in the past but they didn’t survive.

Fellow columnist Mark Geyer is the personification of this duplicity. He was told to do as he pleased in an Origin in 1991 and was then banned for five weeks, costing him a Test jumper. He was conned. Now we are all being conned.

“Why can’t we just accept a set nudge-nudge, wink-wink rules like we always have?”, I hear you ask. Because it doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of anyone but us. We used to have Kingswood Country and Love Thy Neighbour on TV too. Times have changed.

People who don’t understand rugby league didn’t comprehend  why some things last week were allowed to happen. And all we could say in response was “it’s Origin”.

Now, how DUMB did we all sound saying that? Turns out, we didn’t really understand it ourselves, because no-one even told US!  How primitive and unprofessional is it that referees run out under implied pressure not to give penalties “because it’s Origin”?

Like I said, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. And as a spectator sport – leaving aside participants – we are trying to attract new people and become a truly national game.

At best, as an activity without any sound logical or moral basis, Origin is a guilty pleasure – like a smoke behind the bike rack at school or an illicit affair. And guilty pleasures don’t last.

Secondly, Origin is played on Wednesday night specifically because families are watching – that’s why Nine pays the big bucks – so we can’t abrogate our responsibilities to families after copping the cash to keep it midweek.

The kids don’t go out to the park, while their mums work in canteens, to play UFC every Saturday morning.

Rugby league is in the (right now awkward) position of being both a community activity and a knock-em down, drag ‘em out professional sport played by super athletes. Kids can’t be formula one drivers on the weekend but they can imitate rugby league players.

I was not personally offended by what Gallen did. But I wasn’t offended by Russell Packer either. I don’t have kids, I am a crap barometer of community standards.

Here’s what should happen to satisfy community standards: David Smith should sit in front of a camera and tell the nation: “State Of Origin will never be played under a different set of rules again. There are no separate rules.

“If you are watching State of Origin hoping for violence, please switch the channel and watch something else. We don’t want you. Thank you.”

After that, we figure out if rugby league itself needs to sacrifice any more to keep attracting young players. Win back the mums, by all means.

But first, end the hypocrisy.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #46

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

IN last week’s Rugby League Week, Nate Myles raised the spectre of the “prowler” or “cannonball” tackle.

During the round 11 game between his Gold Coast Titans and Parramatta, he had appealed to the referees to do something about the practice. During a remarkably civil on-field debate with rival captain Tim Mannah, it was pointed out that Titans were doing it too.

Myles didn’t want us to make a big deal about the issue in last week’s mag.

Newcastle coach Wayne Bennett, on the other hand, clearly wanted to make an issue of the practice when his back rower Alex McKinnon suffered syndesmosis of the ankle, allegedly after a dangerous challenge by South Sydney’s Nathan Peats on Saturday.

It seems a straightforward process to stop a third defender diving at the knees when two others have an attacking player held.

But the bunnies point out that Peats was only tackling around the legs, as players are taught from the age of five. Of course, the legs used to be the first port of call for any tackler in rugby league.

Now, they’re the second or third priority and that’s why we have these injuries.

It’s unrealistic to expect professional players to go back to tackling around the legs but we can encourage referees to keep a look out for a “third man in” diving at the knees and start giving penalties, as happened in the second half of the Mudgee game.

Many readers no doubt oppose the recent mid-season rule changes in the NRL. But if they are concerned with player safety, like this one, are they OK?

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I’VE been quiet on media access for a while, now haven’t i?

But how is it that you can waltz into a State of Origin team hotel, have 19 minutes with a NSW forward (see Trent Merrin A-List page 12-13) – and a brief chat with another for a news story – and yet that is completely impossible at club level.

There are only 34 Origin players and roughly 450 in the NRL – yet it’s easier to crack it for a chat with an Origin player. Crazy.

The new NRL media guidelines were a step in the right direction but clubs are now just trying to meet quotas, in some extreme cases putting up fringe first graders on weekend mornings at the exact same time as other events in the same city.

The ALRLC desperately needs a co-ordinated media strategy in each city to effectively combat other sports, instead of allowing the current situation where NRL clubs are undercutting each other with chaotic media schedules.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: # 45

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD
ON Sunday in Mudgee, a local newspaper journo asked Nate Myles if he expected to be named in the Queensland State of Origin side.
“I hope so mate, I hope so,” Myles replied. The Titan was being polite but the answer was laden with irony. Myles already knew he was in the side and everyone else in the room knew that he knew.
When the Queensland team was named on Monday, the Maroons were already in camp. Sunday’s Parramatta-Gold Coast game kicked off with Greg Bird knowing he would share a car back to Sydney that night with Jarryd Hayne and NSW assistant coach Matt Parish.
And yet he had the silly facade of a team being “read out” at 5.45pm.
It’s a sad indictment on the shrinking resources of the traditional media that there are no longer the resources at the disposal of editors to just send someone to the airport and sit there to record when members of an Origin team that hasn’t been named yet come and go. It wouldn’t be too hard.
It’s the club teams who suffer from all this. Their players have the unwanted distraction of already knowing they’re in a representative team when they go around on the weekend before selection – and Parramatta great Luke Burt hit the nail on the head on Sunday when he said the big fear in that situation was they wouldn’t “have a go”.
Origin has become so big that we accept any indignity it foists upon us. Phil Gould suggested on Sunday that rather than delay the naming of the team 24 hours, we cancel Monday Night Football in the week just passed.
How about we just don’t name the teams until the round is complete? How about the players finding out they’re in the team at the same time the rest of us do?
Club football pays the bills for rugby league. Players are paid by their clubs. The people involved in Origin will keep taking liberties if we let them. We seem to hold the interstate series in such awe that we are not willing to hold it to the same standards of procedural fairness that we expect from club football.
But tipping off players days before teams are officially named is a slight on clubs and an insult to our intelligence.
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On a more positive note, Mudgee was a great success on Sunday.
If I’m honest, I’d say I hoped our competition had outgrown quaint country venues by now. You’d like to think a boutique ground that holds 10,000 would be appropriate only for pre-season games in 2013.
But that’s not the case, with sub-10,000 crowds still quite possible in Sydney. It puts you in mind of a word that was doing the rounds in the eighties – “rationalisation”. The idea was that there were too many clubs in Sydney and something had to be done.
Then came the Super League war and many of these ideas were discredited. But we’re back where we were then, in some ways.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #44

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

THE NRL is to blame for the lopsided games we’ve been seeing on Friday nights recently – but not in the way you might think.

Yes, the League this year forced television stations to pick their games during the summer, up to and including round 20.

Yes, this has led to games like last Friday’s between South Sydney and Wests Tigers which was over by halftime.

But the fault doesn’t lie in scheduling games for 20 rounds (which gives fans more time to plan*), it lies in having an uneven competition.

The rugby league anarchists out there may not agree but it is the governing body’s responsibility to maximise the uncertainty of results, which in turn maximises sponsorship, attendances and broadcast income.

Achieving this without a draft over the past sixteen years has been amazing.

But simply putting the most competitive games on free-to-air TV doesn’t give you a more even competition, it just disguises the fact that you don’t have one.

By programming 20 rounds in advance, the League has exposed the widening gap between teams caused by the sudden rise the salary cap. As we’ve written here before, players who would previously have been forced to leave their clubs are now able to stay and mid-range men are able to hold teams to ransom.

Returning to the previous system of scheduling would treat the symptoms, not the illness.

Cronulla fans cheer when Todd Carney stays. North Queensland supporters hoot when Johnathan Thurston sticks around. No doubt Manly aficionados with clap when Jamie Lyon re-signs. No-one cheers for an even competition but we’ll all lose interest pretty quickly when we don’t have one anymore.

If a star leaves his club, Big Issue will be cheering. Look what Greg Inglis has done for Souths. But there are hardly any left on the open market now. The idea that clubs should hold onto the players they develop and teams should be full of local juniors plays well to the masses but it doesn’t work in the real world.

We have suburbs playing cities and, in one case, a country. We have areas with a century of rugby league history going up against places where the game is comparatively new. We need to artificially prop up some teams and forcibly hold others back in order for our game to flourish.

Uncomfortable? Unfair? Maybe – but true.

Simply putting the cap up and giving marquee players more money is a recipe for disaster. Even if you let Channel Nine pick the game on they show on Friday each Thursday afternoon, we will get to the point where it’s a blowout anyway.

The NRL must commission a report into parity at the end of this season and come up with a list of measures to make sure all of Australia isn’t going to bed at halftime.

· PS: Attendances indicate fans planned ahead to stay home.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #43

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

THE drugs-in-sport story has reached a new fork in the road, with ASADA suspending all negotiations with Cronulla players and continuing investigations elsewhere.

All this raises a very salient question from our point of view: why isn’t deliberate sports doping illegal in Australia?

ASADA’s right to use evidence gathered by the Australian Crime Commission is in question but if deliberate doping was a crime, the ACC could be doing some of this spadework themselves.

Anecdotally, the doping agency’s inexperience at genuine sleuthing – as opposed to watching people pee in a bottle – is obvious in the investigation so far. They need help.

Just because we wouldn’t be dobbing in our colleagues over doing the wrong thing doesn’t mean we want cheats in the game. There’s a big difference. Generally speaking, athletes in team sports are going to be well-practised and determined when it comes to keeping secrets – they do it every day.

Rather than giving ASADA more coercive powers, the Federal Government should be looking at making doping a more serious offence – which would allow experienced law enforcement officers to get involved.

I am not talking about players who took a supplement unknowingly. Leave that to ASADA. But if there are players out there who have been recorded in wire taps boasting about cheating, or have been supplying their team-mates, throw the book at them.

Get the real cops involved.

It’s a distinction, between casual users and big fish, that is used elsewhere in drug enforcement every day.

When deliberate cheats start appearing in courts and getting jail sentences, maybe the penny will finally drop for those considering the idea of cheating.

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AS we reflect on Saturday’s big crowd at the Wellington “caketin”, we should remember that a decade ago, taking games there was the flavour of the … well, decade.

But each time, the crowds steadily decreased.

Some markets just love rugby league for marquee events but don’t have the patience to keep turning up. They’ll turn to the next novelty without warning.

One has to wonder if the Gold Coast is one of these. I was on the sideline on Sunday for Titans-Dragons and St George Illawarra certainly seemed to have more fans there than the home team.

I can understand if the previous administration was “on the nose” with locals because of the unpaid debts regarding the Centre Of Excellence – but hopefully we can now move on.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK