Homogenised rugby league

I didn’t think we’d be here again so soon. I had planned to take it easier in 2022, after writing several splitte-flecked screeds in 2021 vehemently demonising what passes for the administration of rugby league in this country. I assumed that the same admin might lie a little lower after a constant stream of disasters created entirely by their own myopia, or that’s what it would be called if the media wasn’t inexplicably petrified of the thought of being frozen out by NRL HQ if they offer the mildest of criticisms.


But also:

You might wonder what these disparate bits of news have to do with each other. On the surface, it’s not a lot, but let’s dig and extrapolate a little.

The vision

Phil Gould wrote a manifesto for the NRL in June 2020. He got it published as praise for Peter V’Landys but he was actually setting the agenda for the V’Landys’ regime. To quote from it at length:

Head office needs to be decentralised. The NRL is not a brand. It is simply a competition. This flawed philosophy that the NRL is a brand and should own everything about rugby league has cost our game hundreds of millions of dollars, with little to show for the expense.

The 16 NRL clubs are the major stakeholders in this game. They are the ones with the connection and relationships to our fan base.

All community, charitable, schools, junior league, country rugby league, game and player development programs, that the NRL needs to implement, should be executed through the 16 NRL brands, and any future club brands should the game be ready to expand.

The game needs to increase funding to clubs. Players are getting enough money. Clubs deserve a greater cut of the game’s revenue. They put on the show. They need to be sustainable. They need to invest in their own businesses and resources. How our professional football clubs represent themselves to the community and the rest of the sporting world is extremely important.

The outstanding Panthers Academy at Penrith and the development programs introduced by this club have produced more NRL players that any club in the past five years. These programs have ensured the Panthers’ credibility and competitiveness, not only with the great team they have now, but sustainable well into the future. The satellite programs they have conducted throughout western NSW, have literally saved a large part of country rugby league. The success of these facilities and programs at the Panthers has lit a fire under other NRL clubs to pursue their own academies and country league relationships. Imagine if every NRL club could afford to do the same.

All NRL clubs need to be funded adequately through NRL revenue to develop our game into the future.

In return, all clubs need to be held responsible for supporting programs for schools, junior leagues and regional areas.

With extra funding, all clubs should be responsible for game and player development, in both local junior leagues, and every club should be designated country league areas to support and nurture.

Our game needs to offer incentives for player development. At present, there are no rewards for player development. If we don’t encourage clubs to develop talent, we will die.

Already we are seeing the negative effects of removing the National Youth Competition and the disrespect we have shown for reserve grade football. Our pathways models need to be revisited.

Country and junior leagues need support. Satellite academies right throughout the country.

Phil Gould, League was lucky to survive – here is how it can thrive once again, 21 June 2020 (Ninefax)

I spent roughly fifteen minutes miming a wanking motion after reading it but once I got tired of doing that, it started to become apparent over the following twelve months that Gould’s vision is The Game’s vision. The tl;dr is that Phil Gould knows best and he thinks the Panthers are great (because they did what he said during his tenure as general manager), so everything should be the Panthers and, as if rugby league were a commodity like milk, everything must be homogenised to that end.

When I say ‘everything’, I mean everything. In Gould’s world, the entire structure of the sport, its players, its pathways and its financing should all run through the NRL clubs. The map of Australia – or the parts that anyone cares about, which is just Queensland and New South Wales, and really just Sydney – will resemble a Risk board, divided into fiefdoms and assigned to clubs to develop, as if the clubs were petty barons and the pathways were fields to be tilled by the player serfdom. NRL HQ, which should perhaps be the imperial palace, instead becomes a clearinghouse to dispense the cash from broadcasters and take a half-tithe to manage referees and implement the broadcasters’ recommendations for rule changes.

This feudal system is medieval in its progressiveness and simplicity. An illiterate peasant could wrap their head around it because there’s only one lord and master to which fealty is owed: that of your ducal club, divinely appointed by God himself (Phil Gould). That no other sport in the world organises itself along these exact lines should be an alarm bell but because this system arises from the accidents of a century of suburban tradition, it is considered unimpeachable in its righteousness. The Sun King himself wishes he could have inspired such loyalty.

While I have no particular love for capitalism, as a social organising principle, it has several notable advantages over feudalism but the free market dare not have a say here.

All three grades

It’s no great surprise then to see national reserve grade trotted out. I said as much at the end of last year. It’s clear that Phil Gould and his vassals have been angling for the return of “all three grades”: first grade (NRL), reserve grade (NRL Reserves) and third grade (under 20s or 21s). Gould wants this because this is how rugby league was organised when he was a boy and a player, and as the archectypal boomer, he cannot conceive of a world where his experiences are not given preference to everything else. There will be arguments that this will encourage ticket sales, there’ll be suggestions that families can make a day of it – even though no child would willingly do anything for six hours straight – and this will foster the suburban tribal tradition that V’Landys cites as his justification for doing anything.

There’s just two small problems with this. The first is obvious and that “all three grades” isn’t going to sell any more tickets than it does now, doesn’t make a day out to a game any more appealling to someone with children and if no one is there – other than the kind of anoraks who are reading this, a quantity of people sufficiently small so as to be counted as an error rounding down to zero – how can tribalism be said to exist?

The NRL will bottle the implementation by allowing the first graders to warm up on the field before their game, meaning the reserve grade game will finish an hour before NRL kickoff, turning a six hour day into at least eight. Given that these games are meant to be curtain raisers for the NRL games, this means the additional grades will generally clash with other NRL games happening at the same time, giving broadcasters zero incentive to show more reserve grade than they do now even if they could be convinced that the additional costs will be minimal and the ratings will be worth it, which they won’t be as evidenced by how quickly Nine dropped State Cup during the pandemic.

The second is the existence of that same State Cup. For the NSW Cup, it may not matter much in principle and depending on how you want to measure it, the NSW Cup is already among the least popular of its equivalent state football leagues in the country. There’s 12 teams, of which only the Jets, Bears and Mounties are really independently branded from their NRL clubs and seven run out in exactly the same branding as their senior team. A national reserve grade might not change the look much, but it would be a disaster to rob the NSWRL of their centrepiece men’s competition after several years have just been spent merging the old Country Rugby League with their Phillip Street colleagues. The money that NSW Cup takes from the NRL will instead be directed to the NRL clubs directly.

This comes on the back of the dumbest boardroom stoush I can imagine, where Nick Politis and George Peponis resigned from the NSWRL board because they wouldn’t approve a change that would allow people formerly employed by clubs to serve on the board after a year on gardening leave, instead of three. If the current rules sound like good governance to avoid conflicts of interest, you’d be right! If you guessed that Peter V’Landys had no idea what happened but gave quotes implying support of the NRL clubs and then later said he was about good governance, you’d also be right!

The Herald can also reveal Cronulla chief executive Dino Mezzatesta has informally complained to ARLC chair Peter V’landys after his nomination to run for the NSWRL board was controversially blocked at the 11th hour…

“What’s alarming here is [the NSWRL board] is not accountable,” V’landys said. “It’ll certainly be discussed at the commission meeting.”

V’landys also reiterated his threat to cut funding to the NSWRL if it was found not to have acted properly over the blocking of Mezzatesta’s bid for a seat on the board.

Sydney clubs push radical plan to split from NSWRL after boardroom stoush, SMH, 27 February 2022

To be clear, the NSWRL were enforcing the rules and the NRL club representatives were trying to circumvent them. As a result, the NRL is going to punish the NSWRL by taking away their senior competition and funding, and give it to the same NRL clubs that were circumventing the rules. This is just the best stuff.

The situation in Queensland is different. The Queensland Cup is not a competition which comprises knock-offs of its three NRL clubs (although it has included variations in the past, like the Aspley Broncos in 2007 or 2005 premiership winners, the North Queensland Young Guns). Instead, the Queensland Cup is an outgrowth of the old Brisbane Rugby League competition (although it is actually the successor to the Winfield State League) with the suburban Brisbane clubs joined by teams from Queensland’s larger regional centres to create a fairly balanced and widely representative competition.

The NRL clubs enter into contractual relationships with these heritage clubs to provide repalcement-level players and funding and in exchange, the NRL clubs get a high level of playing minutes and development opportunities for their contracted players. It’s a system that works well enough – imagine minor league baseball without the private equity and you have the basic idea – and makes the best use of Queensland’s rugby league heritage. The market for Queensland Cup is made up of those who are there for the heritage clubs, those who are there to watch up-and-comers, those who are there for cheap footy and beers in the sun and those who are there for a combination of all three. It’s not big but it’s good, sustainable and meaningful football.

What a national reserve grade will do is split this cosy and beneficial relationship up. The NRL clubs will keep their up-and-comers and money in-house. The “all three grades” approach will attract the fans who want to watch up-and-comers, as small a group as that is in a NRL context, and pry them away from Queensland Cup. Suddenly, what were historically important clubs, playing at a sustainable level, are now bereft of talent, financial support and a part of their fanbase.

This is not a recipe for keeping those clubs in a healthy position and is likely to kill off a few. Will this cause nationwide outrage, generating the kind of coverage that the North Sydney Bears get, irrespective of their actual viability? Do you think anyone at head office has considered the contradiction of making the tribalism of suburban football the primary structural element on which the NRL’s marketing edifice is built while, at the same time, going out of their way to kill suburban football?

If you understand that the unstated but very real goal is to homogenise rugby league to fit the needs of the existing NRL clubs to their exclusive benefit, then the answers are obvious.

* * * * *

It is not at all clear where the women are meant to fit into this picture. Gould’s manifesto mentioned ‘women’ or ‘female’ precisely zero times. This is because women didn’t play football when Gould was a lad, so he has little conception of where women’s sport fits into the grand cultural transition we are living through. Again, this man is setting the agenda for the entire sport and decisions made now will have ramifications for decades.

The NRL recently announced an expansion from six to eight teams for 2023 NRLW season and then on to ten for the season after, along with reforming the points cap into a real, albeit small, salary cap. The NRL was slow to get to six teams and has been fortunate that the participation of women has increased so much and the implementation of pathways has been such a resounding success that when the NRLW has increased by 50%, the standard of play has improved as well. Eight teams seems like it will be ideal and by the time ten teams rolls around, girls who were 12 when the NRLW first started will be turning 18 and entering open competition.

There’s huge potential in the NRLW. Ratings are already at the forefront of what club women’s sport generates which, considering the timeslots the women play in, is a fantastic start. The gap that exists between men and women is nowhere near as wide as people imagine it to be. Even if the NRLW was worth only 25% of the NRLM, pro-rated for time on field, that would work out to a competition worth $75 million per year. For 16 teams playing 24 games, that buys a salary cap of at least $2 million for an average salary of $60,000 per year for a squad of 30 players. In other words, if you give them a full time competition, you can have full time professionals.

Let’s imagine what a fully professional NRLW might look like and what impact it might have. How much football can be crammed into a normal weekend? There’s a game on Thursday night, two on Friday (kickoffs at 5pm AEST and 7pm), four on Saturday (1pm, 3pm, 5pm, 7pm), five on Sunday (noon, 2pm, 4pm, 6pm, 8pm), Monday night with a floating late game on Friday or Saturday (9pm) for the Western Australians. That’s 14 timeslots, meaning 28 teams – say, 18 in NRLM in 10 in NRLW – before overlaps need to be considered. We’re assuming that the seasons will run concurrently because, as the pandemic showed, there are certain times of the year that people expect certain sports to be played and if covid couldn’t shift these habits, nothing will. The club rugby league season therefore runs from late February through to early October and if the women are playing anything beyond a token season like they do now, then they will fall into this weekend template and the men and women will need to share airtime. If the women are to realise their value, then they can’t be kicking off at 11am because if you were to propose a NRLM game kicking off that early, you’d be laughed out of the room. The women need the exposure in the prime timeslots to sell their own sponsorships and their own broadcast value and maybe, just maybe, find a few new fans.

All of this assumes that the NRL views the NRLW as having both commercial potential and merit as a female equivalent – isn’t parity the whole point? – to the NRLM. What the NRL has done to date is failed to commercialise this new part of the sport, preferring to give this content to the broadcasters for free. As a result, there’s no clear pathway from the semi-professionalism that currently exists to a full-time professional NRLW.

The outline for the next two years is great news but it is the bare minimum planning that the NRL should be doing in this space. What does the NRLW look like in 5 or 10 years time? Will all 17 NRLM clubs be expected to field a NRLW equivalent? Will they want to? If so, with sixteen games a weekend, what impact does that have on the schedule or broadcast deal? How much NRL is too much? If the maximum appetite is only ten games a weekend, who gets the chop: the clubs or the women?

If you understand that the unstated but very real goal is to homogenise rugby league to fit the needs of the existing NRL clubs to their exclusive benefit, then the answers are not at all clear.

Homogenised rugby league

It’s undeniable that sharing the NRL branding with the women’s competition has been a success. This is the good kind of homogenity. Indeed, for the one-team towns, it wouldn’t have made much sense to do anthing else. Why waste time and effort trying to re-create the Warriors or the Titans or the Knights?

But it’s astonishing that people who rail against the impact clubs like the Broncos had during the Super League war are at least indifferent, if not actively supportive, of handing more power over the domain of rugby league to the NRL clubs in this, the year of our lord, 2022.

But, as usual with our Sydney-centric rugby league culture, there’s a central hypocrisy. They hate it when the Broncos and Raiders bend the sport to their will but if there’s an opportunity for Sydney clubs to enmesh themselves in the gears of the rugby league machine, they’ll take it. This is much in the same way that everyone agrees there’s too many Sydney teams but it’s never one’s own team that needs to be relocated or folded; it’s always someone else’s problem. The solution instead was to take money that could be used for literally anything else and shovel it at the Sydney clubs. Now the Sydney clubs are stable but at what cost?

That brings us to the central tension. Fan surveys often reveal an interest in expanding the game, bringing in new teams in farflung exotic locales like Perth or a second team in New Zealand. Many of the same fans will not brook any attempt to restrict the ability of the NRL clubs, particularly those in Sydney, to run the game to suit their own ends.

It’s just not possible to understand all of this and still hold these ideas as mutually possible. They are mutually exclusive. There is no more money to be squeezed out of this lemon of a sport as it stands. V’Landys has done everything every stakeholder has asked of him, including cutting off the the profitable NRL digital arm and giving space to Nine to do a worse job, and his return is to avoid a decrease in the value of the broadcast rights in nominal terms, losing out in both real terms and pro-rated for the increased amount of content. The Gouldian agenda does nothing to prepare rugby league for the 21st century.

To embark on an expedition to the Far West or Aotearoa (or even just to address the discrepancy between men and women) requires resources. Those resources are currently being shoveled into the boiler of Sydney clubs’ finances where they are turned into ash and the ephemeral smoke of an occasional men’s premiership. If the NRL is to ever reach Perth (or seriously invest in any aspect of its product), it needs to redirect those resources from the existing clubs. Such a course of action is obviously an anathema to the current dogma.

How could “The Game”, which was not born in Huddersfield in 1895, as the history books would tell you, but at Birchgrove Oval in 1908 as Nine and the NRL will endlessly remind you, which wasn’t played in Queensland until 1988, whose champion in 1924 was South Sydney and not Toowoomba and in 1997 was Newcastle and not Brisbane, whose current champions couldn’t even be bothered returning phone calls to the only other professional champion this sport has in the world, which forces the women into bullshit playing conditions so as to not disturb the men or broadcasters with their presence, even begin to contemplate it?

The history, the culture, the mythos of Sydney rugby league, as willingly inherited by the NRL, is full of contradictions, as most cultural institutions are. The future resolution of those contradictions will only ever be to further weld the current NRL clubs into the structure of the sport to the exclusion of all else because any exit from this present course of action has been ignored. If you wanted to take any of those exits, too bad. Phil Gould knows better than you. He’s also scared of his phone talking to him.

This is a worldview shared by me and no more than six other sickos. The worldview espoused by Gould and V’Landys and Nine is pervasive. If you didn’t realise the former existed and assumed that the latter was the truth, that’s only because its in the NRL’s interest for you to believe that because they need you to buy what they’re selling to continue to exist. The alternative, acknowledging anything outside these articles of faith of rugby league – heresy – attacks the legitimacy of the power structure and we can’t be having that.

The QRL won’t defend themselves publicly, even though the time is ripe to scoop up the braver parts of country rugby league in NSW, North Sydney and Newtown and go their own way, seemingly about to be freed of the noblesse oblige of their NRL lieges. Ali Brigginshaw was forced to apologise to Andrew Abdo for correctly criticising the NRL’s non-attempt at organising a women’s premiership in 2021. Who knows what V’Landys and Gould have on everyone to allow this completely unearned deference.

Perhaps the other side know they’re outgunned, and they’re probably right that they would lose any battle on any field because, so far, the NRL syndicate is undefeated. Even Rupert Murdoch could only force their progenitors to a draw. The alternative is to accept a lesser place in Australian rugby league, which over time will become no place at all.