Rugby league in the time of coronavirus
Did you know the world is in the grip of a pandemic? I’m not sure how you could have missed it, given that it’s all I’ve been thinking about for the past week.
The vibe, right here and now on 17 March 2020, is absolutely unprecedented in my lifetime. The only two parallels I can think of, in terms of generalised fear and life-or-death consequences, are the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the peak years of the 2007-10 global financial meltdown. It’s the unknown unknowns that get you.
Rugby league, a sport that didn’t stop for either world war, hasn’t faced a pandemic since 1919. In Australia, the game continued and blithely ignored the Spanish Flu, a disease that claimed 12,000 at home and millions more abroad. In Brisbane, games were moved from the Exhibition grounds to Davies Park when the former was requisitioned as a camp for flu victims. That should have been a clue.
With that long in the rear view mirror, we find ourselves in another global stress test and we get to see if rugby league is up to it.
Before we go too far down the rabbit hole, my actual belief is that Super League and the NRL will return in 2021 in pretty much the same shape as they started 2020. It will be like the year never happened. There’s an outside chance one or more of the less secure clubs goes bust in England but I think there will be enough cash to keep the circus on the road.
This is borne out of my belief that the English speaking world is dominated by rent-seekers. You will see otherwise healthy organisations begging for payouts, rather than draw down on their own resources, because they can and are constantly rewarded for it.
Further, our political leadership is cowardly and they will be bailing out banks in six months with no examination of the conditions that led to this situation, so bailing out rugby league will be a no brainer by comparison. The RBA is already preparing to buy government bonds in a process that is generally called “quantitive easing” by wonks but normal people, if they understood, would call it “printing money”.
This is fine, says the dog in a house on fire, especially if you only look at rugby league and ignore the wider moral hazard. But in the true spirit of the apocalytpic nightmare that 2020 is rapidly descending in to, let’s baselessly and pessimistically speculate (my area of expertise after electrical engineering and before football stats) about what might happen to help fill the time as the world’s economy slowly grinds to a halt.
The worst case scenario, and one journalists are incapable of articulating because they cannot separate commercial structures from cultural institutions, is that the NRL and Super League both fold due to a lack of cash flow, taking the professional clubs with them. In this situation, rugby league will still be played in 2021 and professional rugby league will return no later than 2022 but it may be under very different circumstances to what we’ve seen over the last two and a half decades.
That might be a good thing. Both the Super League and NRL have been aware for thirty or more years that their competitions are too geographically concentrated. Mergers, relegations, relocations, licencing and liquidations have come in and out of fashion but rarely enacted.
It’s interesting to watch people new to the sport make these extremely common sense recommendations (something I did before I became too online) and then be shot down because it’s simply too hard to make it work with the kind of fanbase rugby league has under normal circumstances. Here’s some impetus to get it over the line.
In England, Super League might be left with fewer than a dozen full time professional clubs and perhaps only Wigan and St Helens might still be alive when all this is over. The Championship might then be forced to go part-time and League 1 amateur in the absence of any capital injections or an amazingly generous broadcast deal. This would necessitate the ceassation of promotion and relegation and, in many respects, simply accelerate a process that is already underway.
Suggestions that are commercially sensible but culturally ludicirous will come under great scrutiny. Will the half dozen clubs in Greater Manchester finally realise that combining their resources to create a single Mancunian professional club makes a lot more sense with far greater potential than solely representing a small village with no viable future and competing against the same? Same question but Lancashire. Same question but Cumbria. Same question but Yorkshire.
The results of the most recent general election indicate that this is probably not the case, with northerners preferring strict parochialism in the face of tough times, but times are about to get a lot tougher. A lot of those people might die and their clubs might follow suit before attitudes change.
In Australia, Cronulla announced a $3 million loss just a few weeks ago. They also indicated that they have $16 million in the bank. The NRL has already distributed emergency funds. All of that money might be gone by the end of 2020 but the Sharks will have survived. It’s hard to see which club would have a worse financial position. If they do, they’re probably done.
Still, with nothing in the bank, Cronulla would have no resources to facilitate a move – again, commercially sensible but culturally ludicrous – and the NRL won’t be able to help either. Rather than facilitating a much-needed rationalisation, the crisis might further entrench the status quo, especially if the entrenchment is publicly funded. ScoMo isn’t going to put $10 million into the Sharks only for them to leave his electorate.
It is likely that Politis will keep the Roosters going, as Murdoch will keep the Broncos alive and the consortium at the Storm will do likewise. Clubs owned by leagues clubs (Newcastle, North Queensland, Wests, etc) might struggle. There won’t be much of a grant if the clubs are forced to close and I can’t see how that won’t happen.
Indeed, if the worst case scenario does come to pass, and we only have a few clubs left standing and no league, then it will be as if the Super League war suceeded. The successor competition will be free of the NSWRFL’s baggage to create a new league from scratch, preferably one based on 2021’s demographics and not 1908’s. That will at least give us something to talk about while football isn’t being played and offers the prospect of rugby league becoming a profitable enterprise in the future. We can then endure subsequent decades of “bring back the Sea Eagles/Tigers/Sharks/Eels” chatter.
The real ‘victim’ is the international game. The momentum of the last three years is going to go to waste as there will be no spare cash to pay for its continued growth. Travel restrictions, a fact of life for the next six to twelve months at a minimum, make going anywhere a dicey proposition, let alone for something as trivial as a football game. It’s a shame but that’s life, especially in rugby league.
State of Origin will return as soon as logistically and politically feasible. Broadcasters, players and the rugby league bodies will be dying for the cash injection. They may find Australia in recession at that point, which begs the question of who is going to buy the ad time that generates the income.
Relying on Harvey Norman, a giant collateralised debt obligation that “owns” most of the commercial land that the stores sit on and whose business model is selling overpriced durable non-essential consumer goods to boomers, is risky in the absence of the federal government distributing gift cards on behalf of Gerry Harvey as economic stimulus.
Holden’s already gone. How much more money does Intrust Super have in a market crash? Beer is relatively recession-proof, so the XXXX Dry Maroons taking on the Tooheys New Blues in the VB State of Origin might be the go but not necessarily a river of gold.
Somebody’s going to ask John Singleton what we should do – looking at you, Roy Masters – and I’m going to absolutely lose it.
Ultimately, pandemics aren’t there to “clean up society” as one extremely ill-informed but fortunately anonymous Super League chairman put it. There will be far reaching and extreme consequences of coronavirus that grossly outweigh the minutiae of a sport at the margins of world culture.
Continuing with business-as-usual in the face of a literal pandemic is simply baffling. That this is even a position that is up for debate shows how just how frayed social cohesion has become after decades of globalist neoliberalism. Nonetheless, here we are with no alternatives but to keep calm and carry on because our political and economic structures aren’t up to the task. See also: climate change.
Both leagues, supposedly worth millions of pounds and billions of dollars, should have been better prepared.
It’s not that they should have predicted a global pandemic (although why not because there’s been plenty down through history and it is never different this time around) but they should have been at least be aware that something with this magnitude of risk – very low probability but extremely catastrophic consequences – can occur and protected the organisations accordingly.
Nicholas Nassim Taleb wrote several bestsellers about this after the GFC. It’s not a secret and I really won’t care if clubs or leagues fall over due to mismanagement in the face of entirely foreseeable economic conditions. What is a season cancellation due to mutant influenza but an extreme reduction in cash flow? How do you not have a plan for that? If your plan is “we’re boned”, well then, guess what?
It’s clear that neither league can self-insure against the worst possible outcomes so they should have mitigated the risk by putting it on insurers. That’s what insurers are there for. These are the basic elements of management and it’s a test that rugby league fails time and time again.