A guide to current ARLC policy for the NRL
Peter V’Landys and his team have already floated a lot of ideas to improve the NRL this year, a competition so obviously broken beyond repair that only their special skillset could fix it. The ideas are always frustratingly vague, lacking in details beyond one or two keywords, and there is never an explanation as to how this will resolve the problem it will allgedly address.
This results in the strange situation where idiots on social media don’t have to just reject the concept but, if they want to sound at least half-smart, have to invent the arguments as to why the ARLC might want to introduce it in the first place and then reject those arguments.
I don’t know why I’m doing their work for them but it has something to do with the fact that we only so little to glean the motivations of this administration because they won’t tell us what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. I suspect this is because they do not know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.
The situation is confusing, eerily reminiscient of our completely dysfunctional federal government, so I’m here to clear the air.
The V’Landys administration has introduced two rounds of rule changes. The first came a few weeks before the season restart in 2020 and the second came in December, a few months before the start of the 2021 season.
The stated aim for these changes were to improve the flow of the game, bring back the little man and increase fatigue on the bigger players. I don’t know what any of these things actually mean. Not very subtly, in between the lines, the changes were made to improve broadcast ratings, specifically for Channel Nine, and for Gus Gould to continue his personal vendetta against the refereeing establishment.
The results are a mixed bag, largely leaning negative.
- Neutral changes: auto-checking of tries
- Negative changes: penalising ruck infringements and then offsides with the set restart (six again), reducing interchange, reducing from two to one refs, replacing scrums with play-the-ball restarts in some situations, two point field goals
The only two good changes recently – allowing teams to choose where scrums are taken and the captain’s challenge – were introduced by the previous administration. You can read more about the failings and impacts of these changes here and here.
Ratings continue their inexorable trend downwards, thanks to a mix of structural factors, including technological change, but mostly because Nine have had the same format since the 1980s and not bothered to appeal to anyone who doesn’t have osteoporosis or CTE-like symptoms from watching thirty years of Nine’s coverage.
The extremely frustrating part of this is that the ARLC won’t admit they got it wrong. Graham Annesley spends half of the Monday briefing providing cherry picked statistics to make an argument that contradicts the one he made the week before.
Indeed, there is a fundamental rejection of the idea that the rules don’t work. The tide is slowly turning though which, unfortunately, will result in more band aid solutions rather than a roll back.
Draft / NYC
The draft and the National Youth Competition (NYC) are back on the ARLC’s agenda – or were a few weeks ago – to help restore parity to the NRL. It was, evidently, a failing of club front offices to not adequately prepare their rosters for the rule changes that were introduced with no consultation on short notice except, in a twist of logic reminiscient of authoritian regimes, the rule changes hadn’t altered the balance of the competition. So there’s that.
To help square the ledger, at some unstated point in the future, a draft would (presumably?) offer earlier picks to bad clubs to help them get the best new talent. These kids would be developed through the new NYC, the same competition that was wound up only a few years ago and will be re-introduced into the current environment of cost cutting. It is not clear how bad front offices, unable to cope with the rule changes, would become masters of the draft and managing junior pathways. Indeed, a quick glance at some very big market teams in US sports shows that the draft can be just as badly mismanaged as the playing roster has been in response to the return of the little man!
It’s probably worth noting at this point that the NSWRL briefly had a draft in 1991. It was struck down by the courts because it contravenes Australian labour law. Unless the RLPA and every single player consents to its existence, as their AFL equivalents have done, more or less, then the draft will not succeed. No one has outlined a single way the draft will function, let alone how (or why) political capital will be expended to make it happen or how this obvious historical issue has been overcome.
Perhaps the best prospects out of high school and under 18s state competitions will enter a draft pool with no control over where they end up in the NYC, which sounds like an entirely reasonable thing to put on a teenager’s shoulders. Of course, there’s the US, where an eighteen year old can choose which school he attends before being drafted into the NFL or NBA several years later for considerably more money but let’s not concern ourselves with details.
The original National Youth Competition ran from 2007 to 2017. It was bad for the players’ development and mental well being and it was costly to run. State-based under 20s competitions were introduced for 2018 because they offer players (bearing in mind, these people are barely adults) a chance to stay closer to home with less pressure and an opportunity to develop their abilities against men in state cup before entering first grade. With less travel, less money needs to be spent to administer the competitions. No one has mentioned how any of these factors have been or would be resolved under the new NYC.
In order for the game to survive long term, it needs to find new markets and new customers. The ARLC think these people live exclusively in Brisbane and New Zealand. There’s also something about improving pathways, as demonstrated by the flood of Victorians in the NRL following the Storm’s success.
Some extremely online brain geniouses think these people can be found in Perth and Adelaide. People who have suffered severe head injuries think they exist in North Sydney.
There are kids – unnamed and currently unnoticed but who definitely exist – who are good enough to play in the NRL but are denied the opportunity because there are only three clubs in Queensland and one in New Zealand. Why the excess of Sydney clubs can’t pick up the slack in scouting and development is not known. Presumably they are too focussed on the sons of former greats to watch the footage of players elsewhere that they have easy access to. I personally doubt Peter V’Landys and co are familiar with the structure of the game below the professional level, especially outside of Sydney.
In the meantime, Nine can temporarily prop up the inevitable decline of its ratings by having two teams in Brisbane. The longer this goes on, the less confident I am that Nine will pay for the privilege, but in theory having a Brisbane team in the Thursday or Friday night slot every week should do decent numbers.
Sky Sport NZ might be enticed to give up more money in exchange for the NRL TV rights (which is worth somewhere between $20 and $50 million a year, depending on the currency and source) if they can have the Friday 6pm slot played in New Zealand and featuring a New Zealand team every week.
For the brain geniouses, there are three areas that the NRL should be looking at putting brand new teams: Perth, Adelaide and New Zealand. The initial commercial strength of any of these new teams is likely to be weak to non-existent but this could be ameliorated by either relocating existing Sydney clubs and/or reducing central funding to Sydney clubs in line with their individually pathetic broadcast value and reinvesting it in the new teams. This would create a truly national rugby league and be a long term investment in building an audience in non-traditional areas.
The NRL could also leverage the unmet demand for NRL football in south-east Queensland with some long term projects, perhaps by introducing the Dolphins initially to Brisbane with a view to move north to the Sunshine Coast in a decade or two when an appropriate stadium is available and the population has expanded, and the same again with the Jets but west to Ipswich. If Brisbane becomes large enough after the other teams have moved, there might be scope for a second team in the Brisbane LGA.
That would require planning though. Back in the real world, Brisbane 2 is practically locked in with one of three likely candidates to get the nod. Despite protestations from the NZRL and to a lesser extent, the Warriors, and the fact that a country of 5 million people can sustain only so many professional sports teams, New Zealand 2 might happen in the next decade. While NZ2 could just be a distraction at the time of writing, a 17 team competition is going to require eventually going to 16 or 18 because the weekly bye will be a weekly reminder that the number of teams is uneven, which offends the anal retentives and fails to maximise broadcast revenue. Given this administration’s predilection for Sydney, it seems unlikely we’ll lose one of their clubs, so 18 seems the likely target.
The rest is fantasy and it’s a waste of time to speculate otherwise.
Promotion & relegation
To be fair, this was tossed out there by Buzz Rothfield of the Daily Telegraph, and not the administration, as presumably he was in dire need to fill a Monday column.
Rothfield wants to streamline the NRL to create “a much stronger NRL competition with fewer blowouts and more regular blockbusters”, “huge interest in bottom placed NRL teams late in season”, “huge interest in top Championship teams late in season”, “BRING BACK THE BEARS and Newtown” (capitalisation mine), “massive boost for bush football” and “league on the Central Coast”.
It’s interesting to compare this list with the actual actions of this administration which probably cares about the Central Coast, bush footy, the Bears and Jets and promotion and relegation in equally inifintesimally small measures.
The unanswered question is if state cup football can or does most of these things already, without promotion and relegation, why does Buzz not know this? If the Central Coast or rural NSW can’t sustain teams in NSW Cup or in Ron Massey, which presently appears to be the case, I don’t know how they could sustain a team with a $4 million wage bill in Rothfield’s Championship.
Personally, I love Buzz tossing Queensland a bone by adding Mackay, the state’s seventh largest city, behind Sunshine Coast, Cairns and Toowoomba, which presumably do not merit teams in this very sane and well thought out system.
One only need to look at Super League to see the flaws of promotion and relegation writ large. Unless there are a huge number of relatively commercially even clubs, so there is something resembling partiy and that the loss of an individual club is not a disaster, and there is a relatively functional labour market for players, promotion and relegation can’t function. Super League only has a handful of clubs that actually compete for honours, most are cannon fodder and the bottom teams rotate in and out as the particular structure of the day demands.
In 2020, the Brisbane Broncos would have been relegated. Fox and Nine would have demanded a large part of their money back had that come to pass because a large and important part of their audience would have simply tuned out. The NRL would then have been unable to pay the full amount of the extremely generous centralised grants to the remaining clubs while the Broncos would have struggled to maintain the sponsorship and other revenues needed to keep that particular ship afloat. Players, now too expensive, would have had contracts torn up with minimal realistic prospects for employment. Financial crisis would have been the result.
Alternatively, knowing relegation is in play, broadcasters would simply pay less because the biggest drawing teams cannot be guaranteed to be in the league. Cue cutting the grants and the same existential crises.
Then who would have been promoted in their place? No club outside of the NRL can go from a standing start (or, as the case may be, covering an increase in one’s major expense by 250% in the space of a few months in order to stay close to alive) to finding the necessary commercial power necessary to be competitive in the NRL. The Brisbane expansion team will get, at best, eighteen months to prepare themselves to join the NRL and even that seems tight. The net result would either be salary floor non-compliances or a quick relegation or an even faster bankruptcy for the newly promoted teams.
While all of this is might be survivable, does one season of North Sydney in lieu of the Brisbane Broncos really benefit anyone? Does it outweigh the resulting crises or the required efforts to avoid crisis? Sure, some clubs might be able to beat the odds through luck or acumen, but again, who is that for? The Newtown Jets were cast aside because they didn’t have an audience in 1981. Bringing them back into the NRL in 2022 doesn’t change that.
To take an analogy, we could build a sea wall to mitigate the impacts of rising sea levels or we could decarbonise our econom… oh, I see where I went wrong.
The JEOPARDY OF RELEGATION is exciting though, argues Rothfield and half a dozen similarly minded and equally mentally capable authors on The Roar. This should trigger a surge in TV ratings. Except that there’s never any proof that this is true. It’s always an assertion that it must be true. It ignores the fact that people generally don’t watch bad sports teams and the argument always assumes the best case, when relegation is not decided until the end of the season. In reality, teams often have their fate sealed well in advance. What of the games after that?
Is it really worth throwing clubs into a commercial wood chipper for a non-existent ratings bump?
Bringing back the Bears
If I’m not keen on promotion and relegation, why not just bring back the Bears and cut out the middle man? Let me be clear to you, person with a severe head injury, this is not an option.
The Bears themselves will tell you that they have 200,000 fans. I can claim I have 200,000 fans but where is the proof? The study that the club has commissioned has not been released to the public as far as I can tell. Alleged journalists will repeat these statements as if they mean anything. Putting aside obvious demopgrahic shifts that make the Bears just as unviable in 2021 as they were in 2001, the repeated insistence that this club has something, anything, to offer the NRL today is laughable. 5,000 average attendances at North Sydney Oval while Foxtel desperately tries to bury the team in the early weekend slots because not enough people actually give a fuck about the Bears is an obvious recipe for success.
All the fans lost to the game forever with their thousand yard stares are a figment of the imagination. Not a single person has ever been able to put a number on the fans supposedly lost and it’s never asked if they were ever really fans of the sport or their own trumped up suburban superiority complex. The plural of anecdotes is not data. Never mind that other cities put aside their own traditions to get a seat at the table, the people of North Sydney – average house price of $4 million – need to have their specific feelings catered for by a supposedly national organisation.
The only reason this ever gets a run in the media is because they are extremely lazy. It is a dogwhistle to the good old days of the Sydney competition, when you didn’t have to deal with interlopers from interstate that have an irritating habit of winning regularly or, for that matter, Polynesians.
I could accept a Perth Bears or an Adelaide Bears or a Christchurch Bears but that’s not ever seriously tabled. Why would it be when the current administration is so laser focussed on Sydney suburbs to the exclusion of all else?
When talking about the draft hadn’t really drawn enough attention away from injuries, blowouts and other failings of this administration, the ARLC reached deep into their bag to find a sufficiently bright and loud flash bang grenade to disorient everyone. Ladies and genetlemen, it’s time for Sydney to Go Their Own Way and have a dedicated conference, separate from the regional riff raff, with a championship final that would outshine that of the NRL Super Bowl, such is the power of Sydney’s rugby league enthusiasm.
The ARLC wants to use conferences to drive intra-Sydney rivalries to new heights. They also want to bring back the good old days without having to go to the trouble of inventing a time machine. Given both conferences rate about the same on TV, it hardly seems to be beneficial to broadcasters, unless the plan is to sell the rights to the conferences separately, in which case I doubt broadcasters would be enamoured with the proposed split.
Given all of the NRL’s biggest derbies are played twice a year, including twelve of the fifteen that Blake Solly made up to give the Daily Telegraph some content and the ARLC cover fire, what advantage do conferences actually confer on the competition? In Sydney, those derbies rarely attract anything above normal interest unless both teams happen to be good at that particularly point in time or all of the planets align to allow for a good crowd.
For everyone else, the administration does not care what happens outside of Sydney. For Brisbane, Melbourne and North Queensland, the best drawing teams are their fellows in the “regional” conference (comprising the second, third, sixth, seventh and eighth largest cities in Australia and the largest in New Zealand). For Canberra, Newcastle and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand, this is a big go fuck yourself.
If we simply must proceed with this, can we pretend Newcastle is in Sydney and trade for the Dragons? On the other hand, one conference with eleven teams (9 x Sydney + Newcastle + Canberra) means the other conference only has five, so six teams will need added – let’s say Perth, Adelaide, a second NZ team, Sunshine Coast, Ipswich and another in Brisbane itself – to balance it out. If that meant never having to watch the glorified NSW Cup, I might well be on board.
I should be absolutely clear that no matter what arguments get made here or elsewhere, if the ARLC wants to do it, they will. Irrespective of what happens, we’ll be told it’s worked – whatever that means – so that’s good I guess.
The previous administration had done well to secure a significant amount of money from the NSW government to upgrade key stadium assets that the NRL makes use of in exchange for keeping the grand final in Sydney for the rest of your natural life.
Enter the new administration, who were too late to stop the redevelopment of the SFS but came just in time to redirect approximately $700 million of funding that would have turned ANZ Stadium into a rectangular venue to an unstated number of suburban venues that would get facelifts to turn them into mini-Bankwests.
At $12,000 per seat (the actual capital cost of the actual Bankwest Stadium), $700 million buys not quite four re-developed stadiums with a capacity of 15,000 each. Some out of Leichhardt, Campbelltown, Brookvale, Kogarah, Liverpool and other unnamed self-important suburban enclaves will lose out and, on top of that, ANZ still remains a quasi-oval venue.
Far be it from me to tell the taxpayers of New South Wales how to spend their money but two things strike me about this proposal.
Firstly, the conferences idea is meant to generate sufficient TRIBALISM (interest) that crowds will boom from all the derbies. It’s not clear how these people will all fit into 15,000 capacity stadiums.
Second, the other is that by building 15,000 capacity stadiums, this effectively says that this is the best the NRL can do in Sydney – the HEARTLAND – for the next thirty to fifty years. Considering most stadiums operate at around 66% average occupancy, this actually means 10,000 is the best they can do. Even by global rugby standards, let alone other sports, 10,000 crowds for a supposedly top flight professional sport in its alleged heartland is pathetic and demonstrates Sydney’s apathy to the sport, even though we’ve spent all this time and money catering to their widdle feewings.
Moreover, this is what these teams draw now so what was the point of spending $700 million?
Some might argue that the attendances are unimportant in the modern game but it remains a vitally important revenue stream for clubs and, as sports played behind closed doors in 2020 demonstrated, there is a lot to be said for big stadiums full of fans adding to the televisual spectacle (the coronavirus hill I will die on is that fake fan noise sucks). It’s also much easier to analyse to determine trends in preferences which are as valid and representative, if outnumbered, by spectators via broadcast.
Alternatively, if bigger stadiums can be built, then either more money needs to be found in a post-recession covid-recovering economy or more seats are built at fewer venues. In that case, who else loses out? If this policy is as successful as promised for the lucky clubs to get their grounds rebuilt, aren’t you consigning the rest to the dustbin of history?
Future spitballing by this administration or its media hangers-on should be ignored. Unfortunately, if you’re reading this, any other ideas that come out will likely be so stupid that you will be unable to resist the urge to dunk. I know I’m as guilty as any.
But next time something insane comes up, I want you to think about a selection of these themes that the administration does not want you think about –
- Why weren’t the second order effects of the rule changes, including a higher than normal injury toll and more blowouts than usual, considered before implementation?
- Does reclassifying what constitutes a concussion sufficiently protect players from injury?*
- How do handouts to NRL clubs resolve the financial crisis created by a combination of coronavirus and overspending when actually, every sport in the world (bar the XFL) survived the pandemic and the NRL was profitable and there are significant issues with the structure of the sub-professional part of the sport that seems to have not been addressed in any way and in fact are likely to get considerably worse because of cost cutting at headquarters?
- How and why does Peter V’Landys run two sports simultaneously?
- Why do ratings continue to decline when the game is supposedly as exciting as it has been since the 1980s?
- What is the precise nature of the relationship between and influence of Phil Gould on Peter V’Landys?
- Why do all of these ideas come with a noticeable lack of detail and, sometimes, outright contradict other stated ARLC policies?
- Why is Sydney continually placed at the centre of the rugby league universe at the expense of the rest of the world?
- Why does Peter V’Landys seemingly have nothing to say about the women’s game, always left to Andrew Abdo to address, but is an endless source of ideas for the men’s?
- Why did the administration cave to pressure from racists on the anthem before the All-Stars game in 2020 and then backflip for 2021?
- Should noted piece of shit and Prime Minister Scott Morrison be allowed to use rugby league as a branding tool for himself?
I could go on.
No matter what this administration throws up, a subsection of the fanbase and almost all of the media will accept it as a Good Idea because it appears it is their innate nature to be toadies. The discussion about six agains demonstrates this well: not a single commentator has suggested removing it from the rulebook. The best the rugby league Overton Window can offer is to modify it to mitigate its more outrageous impacts on the game. It’s cowardice.
Despite being an enormous coward myself, I don’t think I will ever understand this. V’Landys, Abdo and co have the power and they can defend themselves. The status quo and the powerful should always be relentlessly questioned and made to justify their ideas (and their existence, cf France 1789 – 1799). It is only then that we can be honest about what is good and what is working and what is not. However, in this environment stuffed with spineless lackies and uncritical thinkers all too willing to embrace their messiah, we can only wait for better times.
*My favourite response to this is that “now all the risks are known, players can judge for themselves.” The risks are very much NOT well understood, let alone known, and this is the point.