Big brain essay #1: The content pipeline

It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.

Sometime last year, I watched all of 30 Rock, the sitcom about making a sketch show at NBC. In there was a joke about how the new network head knew broadcast television was dead and his job was to squeeze every last dollar out of the inevitable decline. That joke premiered around 2011. It occurs to me, here in 2021, that when news of a particularly odious decision is handed down about the NRL’s broadcast arrangements, fans (at least, the fans who are interested in that sort of thing) are quick to jump the gun and start labelling TV execs stupid. The execs know, just as well as you do, what’s going on but they would never vocalise that they work in a dying industry. If you were in their position, I doubt you’d do anything different.

Nine, to just pick a random example out of the air, knows that the free-to-air gravy train is gone and they are now in a doom loop. They cut the cost of production to match ad revenue, which leads to lower quality programming, fewer viewers, less ad revenue and another drop in the cost of production to match. This will continue until free-to-air bottoms out with all the commercial stations going bankrupt or a miracle occurs that allows commercial FTA to eke out a radio-like existence. Perhaps a religious sect will come to power and ban the internet in Australia or terrorists will slice through the undersea cables that connect Australia to the rest of the world. Then we’ll all come crawling back.

Until then, Australian rugby league has to deal with terrestrial broadcasters. As an important sporting and cultural institution, rugby league finds itself on the anti-siphoning list. This means that the NRL grand final, State of Origin, Kangaroos Test matches and Kangaroos World Cup matches played locally are offered to free-to-air broadcasters first before they can be sold to pay TV providers. It’s a piece of legislation that was brought in in 1994 to prevent the then-new pay TV providers from paywalling “events deemed culturally important are freely available to all Australians. Though technically any event could be added to the anti-siphoning list, it has historically been used exclusively for sport.” As Business Insider has noted, the legislation is due to expire shortly and there has been no discussion to date about what happens next.

Theoretically, in the unlikely circumstances that it is not renewed, then the NRL could go full paywall, sacrificing mass audience for maximum income. F1 has already done it, with free-to-air TV deals to broadcast live racing a thing of the past and likely long term to be replaced by F1’s own over-the-top streaming platform and production, as the sport moves to maximise its profitability among a smaller audience. Cycling is moving that way, with GCN+ and Eurosport hoovering up most of the broadcast rights to second and third tier events and streaming internationally to audiences too small even for pay TV to look after. The MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL, among others, all have their own streaming platforms, albeit generally relying on traditional broadcasters to produce the games.

A smart move, rather than reinvent the wheel, would be for the NRL to create a long term deal with Kayo (or whatever other provider), possibly with a lower price tag in exchange for equity in the platform itself. If the NRL did then purchase a stake (or, more likely, bail out) in Super League later, they would then be able to effectively roll all pro rugby league content on to one platform that could service the global audience. Unlike other leagues, the sport wouldn’t own the platform outright but would also be spared the technical headaches of owning and operating such a system, offering better value for money because rugby league would come bundled with other content, which in turns gives the platform a stable foundation on which to build a subscriber base and bid for future broadcast rights. The season would then be re-designed to keep subscribers engaged all year around, instead of pausing their subscription after the grand final and unpausing for the All Stars. Of course, at some point, someone would need to be contracted to produce the games.

Coupled with a move away from traditional broadcast arrangments to a more self-reliant future, one of rugby league’s medium term goals should be aiming to create a 24 hour content pipeline. That is, I should be able to sit down at about 5pm on a Friday evening and watch consecutive games of pro or semi-pro, men’s and women’s rugby league kick off every two hours until about 3pm on the following Monday, Australian eastern time.

Rugby league is already roughly aligning itself along time zones, rather than continents like soccer and hemispheres like union, with the emergence of an Americas confederation to join the RLEF in Europe and the APRLC in the Asia-Pacific region. Late at night on the east coast of Australia is around lunchtime in the UK, late at night in Europe is evening on the east coast of the Americas and late night on the west coast is around lunchtime in Australia. The baton could be passed around the globe every weekend, if only we had the teams and infrastructure, and while the sun may set frequently on the rugby league empire, its only because we play under lights.

As much as that sounds like an overdose, it’s 36 timeslots and so would only require 72 pro/semi-pro teams or a minimum of twelve clubs per zone capable of furnishing a men’s and women’s programme. The men’s game could already cover this, if its participants were a little more spread out.

Ideally, the pipeline facilitates a cross-pollination of fans across leagues. The most obvious example is the occassional English game that kicks off at Saturday midday local time and gets broadcast on Fox League at 10pm, following the Saturday night game in Australia. If there’s a main audience in one zone and two marginal audiences in the other zones, to me that’s got to be better than just having the main audience.

Quite how rugby league becomes a year-round venture, I don’t know. Every sport needs an off-season but league’s season could be extended with a decent rep programme after the club season has finished and better leveraging warm-ups and pre-season trials. There’s probably space for a short form of the game too. Consider a calendar of pre-season 9s (or 7s) tournaments and 13s trial matches in February, an 18 round club season with a couple of rep breaks starting in March and finishing July, finals through August, an extended men’s and women’s World Club Challenge in September and internationals and other rep games in October and November with a little breathing space in December and January. Its not too far off what we have now but the top players would have somewhere between 25 and 33 first class matches each year, which is a manageable load (if it turns out that’s not a manageable load from a brain injury perspective, then the sport will need to be re-designed).

Most of that is less pipeline and more pipe dream. The reality is that the anti-siphoning legislation will likely be renewed, as politicians are usually reluctant to make a point of pissing off the legacy media over something most Australians either don’t care about or take for granted. The boldest tweak I can realistically imagine would be to include the FTA streaming platforms (9Now, 10Play, etc, etc, as well as the new Kayo Freebies) and adding the Super Netball grand final. We are also light years from having a serious semi-pro competition in the United States that’s worth broadcasting, as if this will ever happen. I very much doubt whether the current RL management in Australia would even want to attempt any of this, probably thinking that the internet is a flash in the pan and Nine is a safe enough bet. Alternatively, they may look forward to a future of bidding between Telstra, Optus, Stan and Kayo. Super League can’t even be bothered to schedule its games to leverage a potential Australian audience, which is why the Australian rights are worth a pittance to Super League despite it being rugby league’s largest market.

Most people will tell you that you need to be on free-to-air to reach a mass audience. That may be true now but I don’t know how much longer that will remain the case. With no mass reach, free-to-air has little to offer professional sport. The paywall beckons. It may be that Youtube will take the place of FTA broadcasters, as an ad-supported service that everyone knows about. The trick will be getting their attention and then converting them into subscribers.