Premium: Discord – What now for the Wolfpack?

By STEVE MASCORD

IN assessing a seismic day for North Hemisphere rugby league, the toughest mental challenge is how much to attribute to Covid-19 and how much to the unique geopolitical and financial conditions at work (or on furlough!) in the game here.

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Why Is Melbourne Storm Successful But London Broncos Aren’t?

Melbourne - Gauci Bellamy EvansBy STEVE MASCORD

OF all the Brits who might one day end up running an NRL club, it’s fair to say Mark Evans would have been a long way down the list just 12 months ago.

Best known for his work with Saracens and Harlequins in the other code, Evans had played a role in London Broncos’ tenancy at The Stoop as well as helping market this year’s World Cup semi-final double-header at Wembley.

But the Welshman’s roots were deeply in the other code, where he had been involved in the Bloodgate scandal of 2009, when Harlequins were found to have been using capsules to cheat the blood bin system.

All that changed when Evans was approached early this year by New Zealander Bart Campbell regarding the Melbourne Storm. The NRL champion was up for sale and Campbell, a sports manager and marketer, was thinking of forming a syndicate to buy it from News International.

As cursory as Evans’ knowledge of rugby league was, he knew even less about Australia when he first touched down in May to conduct a due diligence investigation of the Storm.

Now a month into the job, he is uniquely placed to compare the game in Australia and the UK as a business – and also to offer an opinion on why the fortunes of Melbourne and London, who operate in apparently similar environments, have varied so dramatically.

His both an outsider and someone who has had an insider’s perspective on the running of the sport in two hemispheres.

Chatting from his AAMI Park office on a weekday afternoon, he stats with what he sees at the major difference between the two sports markets. “The Australian market is not dominated by one sport, whereas in the UK, soccer is so much bigger than everything else.

“The sports market is terrifically competitive between the four football codes (in Australia), although soccer is played in the summer so it is slightly removed in the sense that for spectators and television, it’s really competing with cricket. It competes with the other football codes for participation and does so very successfully.”

But in Australia, as opposed to the UK, “rugby league has managed to position itself, over time, as one of the two critical television sports on the Australian roster.”

We’ll dip in and out of the Broncos v Storm comparison during this story but Evans starts by pointing out the Melbourne have Broncos in the shade “partly because rugby league here is a national television product.

“You get half a million people in Melbourne watch State of Origin. That’s massively increased from where it was but you have got big events in rugby league in Australia that almost transcend the sport. The grand final and State of Origin really do … they’re sort of must-watch events.

“So there is an awareness in Melbourne that rugby league is a big sport in Australia. In the same way that people in Sydney have to accept that AFL is a big sport in Australia, you can’t avoid that, you can’t ignore that.

“So it’s a lot higher up the sports agenda, I suppose, than rugby league is in the UK.

“Even the AFL, which is financially the strongest of the codes, is having to pump huge amounts of money, amounts you couldn’t possibly spend on the development of a sport in the UK, into Western Sydney as a classic example.

“Melbourne and London? Melbourne is four million people. How do you define London? M25 London has got about nine million and, I mean, everything in Melbourne is played in the middle. They only play out of three stadia – all the rugby, all the soccer, all the Aussie Rules – all in the middle of town.

“In terms of getting to a game, it’s a lot easier than it is in London. Most of the grounds in London tend to be in the suburbs. If you’re living in Barking and you want to go to Twickenham and watch Super League, it’s not an easy trip.”

The AFL signs players from other sports and gives them to clubs, gives expansion teams preferential draft picks and decides what positions need to be filled in each club, paying the wages of those employees the club can’t afford.

“That brings us to another difference – the power at the centre,” says Evans. “Although the differences aren’t as stark in rugby league, the whole power of the league and the power at the centre, are much more along the lines of the American model.

“So, the AFL are a very powerful organisation. They run the league, they run the sport, they run everything. The NRL, not so much but still more than Premier Rugby or the Premier League. They’re a much more centralised business model, which has some advantages.

“You can be more strategic, you can try and promote the benefits across the league rather than everything accumulating to a small number of clubs within the league.”

While elsewhere in this month’s Forty20, Steve McNamara reckons the NRL isn’t as unpredictable as it’s made out to be, Evans says it’s “probably the most competitive of the football codes in Australia.

“Melbourne Storm, running second, can go to Wests Tigers last week and lose and no-one really falls over in shock. Was it a surprise? Yeah, probably. Most people would have said the Storm would win. Was it a shock? Not really. They’ve got Benji Marshall, they’ve got Robbie Farah, they’re not a bad side – and they’re running 15th.

“I suppose Premier Rugby is the closest the UK has got. That probably goes down to eight or nine (teams) – possibly. In the NRL, it really does go down 14 or 15 in the way the AFL used to but now doesn’t because of those expansion policies.

“So that’s another big difference – not just because rugby league is a bigger sport but because of the way it’s structured and organised.”

You can understand from talking to Evans the way he thinks. He’s creating a list in his head, is if for a presentation, the way journalists rank things in terms of newsworthiness even when they’re talking to their friends in the pub.

Evans reckons rugby league, administratively, is still ahead of the pack in the UK and more like its Australia equivalents than other sports.

“They’ve got a licence system, they’ve got a reasonably equal divide of central money. It’s just that they don’t have as much to play with,” he observes.

“Greater Western Sydney really aren’t competitive yet.”

Marketing is also very, very different. “ The control you have over information flow is very different, it’s probably more highly developed in the UK.

“Because the media is much more regionalised here, all the radio is local … Melbourne people listen to Melbourne radio, Sydney people listen to Sydney radio. There are no national newspapers aside from The Australian. If you live in Melbourne and you are going to watch rugby league, you’re either going to watch the Storm or you’re going to watch it on TV. You’re not going to travel to Canberra or where-ever. The same for the Warriors, the Broncos, the Knights, the Cowboys.

“There are a lot of things that the sport itself can’t control. They either come to pass over long periods of time or they accidents of geography.”

Australians, historically, have appointed commissions whenever they were in trouble. They do it for corruption and politics and business and now they have one for rugby league.

“I think it’s a very good model,actually,” Evans says. “I think that the independence aspect, while by no-means perfect and I don’t think anyone at this very early stage is saying it is, is a good model.

“This isn’t just a rugby league thing, it’s all of sport but I think trying to get good governance and good strategy from Leeds where it’s all the teams sitting around the table is very difficult.

“It’s culturally … in the UK we’ve no history of it, in hardly any sport at all. It’s not just us, it’s Europe. The closest thing we’ve got, it might be the Irish rugby union.”

Evans says scarcity of international distractions is actually a strength for the NRL as it provides “focus”.

And so back to our central question: why have the Melbourne Storm excelled and fellow exiles London Broncos floundered?

“I have a fantastic admiration for David Hughes and there are many people at that organisation trying to do the right thing and doing the right thing,” he says. “I do think that growing a spectator based sport in an area with very little tradition of that sport withoutt the sport having massive television coverage is incredibly hard.

“Look at basketball in the UK. Thousands of boys play it. We tried to get a really big basketball league going in the UK , I don’t know how many times. We failed because of lack of arenas and lack of visibility through the media.

“I don’t think it’s any co-incidence that if you look at the NFL, what did they do before bringing games to Wembley? They saturated Sky on Sunday night for five years. They created a market where people understood the product before they even tried to get people to come along and watch it live.

“There are a number of things you have to have, there is no magic formula, but a number of things we’ve talked about today, London Broncos just don’t have. It’s not a huge television sport – there are some (viewers) – the grounds are all spread out and travel’s difficult, they have a dominant code and it’s a real tough thing to do anyway, even when all those things are going in your favour.

“The simplistic saying, ‘oh, it must work because there’s so many people’ – that’s just silly. It flies in the face of all the evidence all around the world.

“There’s got to be a significant proportion of people in that population base who are aware of and understand and have some enjoyment/interest in it. That can come from playing it, it can come from watching it on television. ..

“If you haven’t got that, it’s really difficult.”

Filed for: FORTY20 MAGAZINE

WORLD RUGBY LEAGUE POWER LIST: Year One

By STEVE MASCORD

FIRST it was the Davis Cup tennis player. Then the Sydney first grade cricketer.

In the space of just under two months, rugby league lost two of its biggest administrative names in Rugby Football League executive chairman Richard Lewis and NRL CEO David Gallop. From a leadership point of view, it was without doubt our biggest shakeup since the Super League war.

Sure, they leave the sport in very different circumstances on opposite sides of the world.

In Australia, Gallop’s departure is linked in no small part to a boom. The next television rights deal is expected to bring a windfall which the new Independent Commission needs to manage by balancing a myriad of competing interests. Gallop was one of the final vestiges of News Limited’s half ownership of the National Rugby League.

In England, Bradford has been to death’s door and back this season and the Red Hall administration has been criticised for the poor financial state of the game after giving away competition naming rights in exchange for free advertising on the side of trucks. The collapse of Crusaders put Richard Lewis’ franchise licensing under the spotlight and club bosses are beginning to grumble about the parlous financial state of the game.

But in their own ways, Gallop and Lewis leave big holes – which is why this is an ideal time for Rugby League Week to publish our first annual Power List of the most influential league people in the world.

You’ve seen similar lists elsewhere but to our knowledge it’s the first specific to rugby league but still wide enough to include the game on a global scale.

There’s no beating around the bush – lists like this are terribly subjective. The buck stops with me this year – in future we might get more democratic and scientific. The writer took advice from people but in the end this list is based on my own observations.

The criteria here is simple – if rugby league has a “direction” as such, who is behind the thing, pushing the hardest? These aren’t necessarily people who throw their weight around most often – but equally we have not favoured wallflowers who could action enormous change for the sport with their wealth and influence but who have so far done nought.

Let us know what you think

1.        John Grant

ARLC chairman: The former Australian international and IT tycoon comes across as a genial chap but he left no doubt about his ruthlessness with a tap on the shoulder that was felt around the rugby league world last Tuesday. The Independent Commission could have been as convoluted and impotent as a government department but Grant has made sure this is not the case by driving a steak into the heart of the old establishment from the outset. The challenge for Grant now is to find a CEO dynamic enough to be an effective frontman but pliable enough to work with the Commission more smoothly than Gallop did.

2.        Gary Pemberton

ARL Commissioner. The former head of Billabong, Qantas and TAB boss has a reputation as a head-kicker but Pemberton reportedly played a key role in keeping Michael Searle in charge of the Gold Coast Titans when Gallop wanted more decisive action. Pemberton’s power remains pretty much in reserve. Unless the commission becomes more open about its inner machinations, most of his head-kicking or job-saving will remain the preserve of rumours and unsourced reports. But rest assured, he’ll be close to the action.

3.        Wayne Bennett

Newcastle coach. No-one in rugby league – or indeed Australian sport – knows how to use his profile and status more effectively than the Knights mentor coach. Bennett keeps his public utterances scarce so they have maximum impact and much has already been made of his footballing friendship with Grant. As well as being employed by a millionaire in Nathan Tinkler, the winner of seven premierships has strong, long-lasting relationships with many other members of our top 20. Thus his influence is twofold – public and private.

4.        Rupert Murdoch

Media mogul. It’s only been four months since the Commission took over in Australia but already Rupert Murdoch’s influence over rugby league is far more significant in the United Kingdom. If Sky was to stop showing the game, it would be the equivalent of bombing us back to the dark ages – certainly, fulltime professional rugby league would probably disappear. But News owns half of premier sports which owns half of Fox Sports in Australia – meaning there’s still plenty of influence in the southern hemisphere when you include Sky Sports NZ as well

5.        David Gyngell

Television executive. When ranking television executives its unwise to underestimate the power of the current free-to-air rights holder in Australia. Nine has the rights to make the final offer in the current negotiations and its influence over the National Rugby League is all-pervasive. The reason one game kicks off at 2pm every Sunday is that it is over before Nine’s delayed telecast of the other match. Radio stations are banned from calling Friday night matches that are not live on Nine. And the network’s contract-defying refusal to show matches at a reasonable time in the sport’s developing states has been responsible for many a letter to the editor.

6.        Phil Gould

Penrith general manager. Gould’s outspoken war on the AFL incursion into western Sydney has had an impact on the independent commission and his criticism of Gallop clearly also found influential ears. Gould has played the role of contrarian for a decade now, criticising the NRL at every turn and turning up the heat on the administration over most issues. After a period in the media, the former premiership coach was coaxed back to clubland and has asked the League for cap concessions to help keep the Panthers strong in the face of the GWS menace.

7.        Ian Frykberg

Television executive. The manager of International Sports Television is an imposing and important figure expected to represent the interests of Fox Sports in the NRL’s continuing TV rights negotiations. Insiders tell us he is omnipresent at talks despite his low public profile. Even though there is now an independent consultancy working for the NRL during talks, all sides respect ‘Frykers’ opinions when it comes to the value of rights and how best to handle them when they are secured. Renowned for getting things done when negotiations reach a stalemate.

8.        Russell Crowe

Actor. It may not make sense immediately but Russell Crowe is our biggest powerbroker outside the traditional league hotbeds of Australia, New Zealand and England. Yes, he owns South Sydney. But fears he would be brash and push the NRL around have proven baseless. It’s in places like the United States that Crowe has made a difference for the game, getting our game on national talk shows and attracting a six figure crowd to a pre-season game in Jacksonville. He considered investing in the AMNRL and supports taking the World Club Challenge to Las Vegas.

9.        Nigel Wood

RFL chief executive. With Richard Lewis’ departure, Nigel’s is the undisputed seat of power in British rugby league. The former Halifax officials has risen through the ranks of Red Hall, which is now turning a profit instead of the losses that followed the disastrous 2000 World Cup. Wood is also the tournament director for the 2013 World Cup and the longer the search for a chairman continues, the more his influence deepens. But the fact Stg500,000 had to be raised by fans to save Bradford, and the collapse of Crusaders, are black marks against his administration.

10.     Nick Politis

Sydney Roosters chairman. The collapse of the NRL partnership committee was expected to erode the influence of the City Ford millionaire. But then came the rise of the chairman’s group and the downfall of David Gallop, with whom Politis reportedly fell out. At one point last year, the chairmen demanded guarantees the commission would be put in place and asked for what amounted to an advance on the next television deal. Those close to the game say Politis is still as active politically as ever, even if his direct and obvious influence isn’t what it was.  Reacting last week to David Gallop’s departure, his predecessor David Moffett commented: “You also have to question what influence Nick Politis is having behind the scenes. It’s all very much ARL.”

11.     Gary Hetherington

Leeds chief executive. A self-made mover and shaker who started out as a rugby league missionary at Sheffield and ended up running a dual code club in Leeds that has given us our current world champions. Hetherington is on most committees that matter in England, has been pushing for an expanded World Club Challenge for years and this year gave his players more than the total prizemoney for beating Manly. His power comes from years of putting in the hard yards.

12.     David Leckie

Television executive. The former Nine heavy hitter is now at Seven, a serious challenger for NRL and State of Origin rights. Leckie is the CEO of Seven West media, which owns the network, and it was he who paid $1.25 billion for the AFL rights last time they were up. He was recently included in The Australian’s top 50 most influential people in Australian sport. The newspaper noted Leckie was “the only man to take two television networks to number one”. Even if seven gets no rights, its involvement will push the price up considerably.

13.     Lachlan Murdoch

Television executive. The son of Rupert, like Leckie, is in a good position to cause current rights holders Nine a lot of heartache. Aside from his obvious connections as a member of arguably the most powerful media family in the world, Murdoch was reportedly good friends with Gallop, goes back a long way with Bennett and is a passionate Brisbane Broncos supporter. Gallop met Murdoch on April 11 to kick off talks with non-incumbent bidders for the TV rights.

14.     Petero Civoniceva

Brisbane player. With all the wheeling a dealing going on between the ARL Commission and television networks, players are feeling a little left out. RLPA chief David Garnsey recently complained the NRL had announced next year’s representative format without consulting his organisation. Petro will be directly involved in the Collective Bargaining Agreement and has widespread respect from a cross section of the game’s players. He’s made it clear he believes they deserve a better deal. Only last week, Civoniceva reacted to David Gallop’s departure by saying: “The playing group must be consulted about the replacement. The playing group will obviously be heavily affected by the decision.”

15.     Cameron Smith

Melbourne player. Australia’s captain showed he was an independent thinker before the State Of Origin series when he signed an endorsement deal with Victoria Bitter, the sponsor of the Blues. Occasionally outspoken on political issues, Smith has been through the Storm salary cap drama and has the even temprement to deal with players, media and officialdom. It would not surprise to see him move into administration upon retirement.

16.     Ian Lenagan

Wigan chairman. The former Wigan fan who got rich and ended up chairman, with Harlequins RL his stepping stone. Lenagan has restored the fortunes of arguably our most famous club to something resembling former glories in the age of the salary cap – no mean feat. Notoriously frugal and running an extremely lean operation at DW Stadium, Lenagan has quickly risen through the ranks of influential British rugby league men on the back of his beloved Warriors.

17.     Shane Richardson

South Sydney chief executive. Like Hetherington, Richardson’s biggest strength is his longevity. His connection with Crowe and experience in England with Gateshead and Hull also help him connect the dots. When it comes to getting the numbers to effect change at CEOs conferences, Peter Doust and Steve Noyce are sometimes his equals but no-one is better. Comes from a fan-boy background like Lenagan and Hetherington but arguably more hard-nosed than either of them. Probably the number one draft pick if they had one for CEOs.

18.     Nathan Tinkler

Newcastle owner. It could be argued this is a man with great potential power but we haven’t had the chance to see it in action yet. But he has already attracted Wayne Bennett, Kade Snowden and Danny Buderus to the Knights and his capacity to wreak havoc with sport was grimly illustrated by his decision to surrender the Newcastle Jets licence after a clash with soccer administrators. A similar stand against the ARL Commission would be catastrophic – let’s not forget the Super League war looked to have been won by News Limited until Paul Harragon paid for a mini-bus and drove his team-mates to Phillip Street.

19.     Wayne Beavis

Player agent. Others such as George Mimis may have big names. David Riolo may have moved the goalposts by taking clients to AFL. But old stager Beavis has arguably the biggest stable and the most influential contacts in the game. It’s Beavis who has been representing the players in talks with the RLPA over representative payments. He is also a driving force behind the Agent Accreditation Scheme which recently suspended Issac Moses and George Mimis over the Melbourne Storm salary cap drama.

20.     Graham Annesley

NSW Sports Minister. It’s not every day that a former referee and leading NRL official gets such a senior government position and Annesley is our top ranking polly for that reason. As sports minister in the state where the NRL is headquartered, Annesley makes decisions that have a direct impact on the sport. It’s understood several of his decisions have paved the way for the stadia policy which will come into force in Sydney next year. A fellow the game considers itself lucky to have in its corner.

Filed for RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK