The death of the rep weekend

Everyone can see the potential of international rugby league. The people who allegedly run the sport are not quite that blind. However, no one seems quite sure how to get there without upsetting the entrenched interests that actually run the sport.

Hand waving away this aspect of the problem is fine for people shooting the shit on Twitter*, but I’d expect more from experienced and knowledgeable journalists, especially ones who played a role in putting the current lot in power, than “try doing something that is actually good for the greater good of the game, instead of what is good for yourselves.” If it were that easy, it’d already be done.

The weak compromise is to push internationals to a “window” the NRL has graciously proposed for the end of the season, starting in October, which is a) not when the NRL usually plays, so I’m not sure really sure if this is the NRL making way in the meaningful and usual definitions of those words, and b) the perfect time for clubs to pull valuable, international-calibre players from representative duties and send them for surgery and other rehabilitations for injuries accumulated during the club campaign. That this is even a compromise relies on the fact that Andrew Abdo is “start[ing] to think about” a series of options for how to utilise that time and in no way committing to any actual action on the part of the NRL.

The current malaise around the international game has myriad parents. It’s on the fans for not giving enough of a shit to demand change. It’s on adminstrators domestically for not marketing the game well enough to pay the bills, and on administrators abroad for not keeping up with the on-field pace set by the Australians to keep games competitive, or at least keep them in line. It’s on broadcasters for failing to show any interest in something new when they can reap the baked-in audience for the NRL without any additional effort.

Consquently, if everyone is to blame, then no one is, and so there’s never any accountability for the failure to deliver a part of the sport that the AFL would cut their arms off for, and which allows rugby union to look down their noses at their parochial and small-minded cousins in rugby league.

The secret is that wider Australian fanbase actually does like international rugby league, even if they don’t know it. Back in the old days, before streaming ruined Oztam forever, the 2017 World Cup finals that Australia played in each rated over a million people for Seven. Only seven regular season NRL games out-rated the quarter final between Samoa and Australia (46-0), only three of those out-rated the semi final against Fiji (54-6) and none out-rated the final against England (6-0) or, for that matter, the opening fixture of the tournament (Australia 18 – England 4).

For the record, all seven games featured the Broncos (15-7 and third that year). The only two NRL games at any point in the season that both out-rated the World Cup final (1.38m) and didn’t feature Brisbane, were the Roosters-Cowboys preliminary final (1.67m) and the grand final itself (3.4m). Admittedly, the group stage flogging Australia handed to France (52-6) only drew 606,000 pairs of eyeballs in prime time on a Friday night, less than every free-to-air NRL game in 2017.

Even as late as 2019, the men’s post-season ANZAC Test drew an audience of 888,000 excluding streaming, which was on par with the week one of the NRL finals that year. The problem then isn’t that Australians won’t watch international football, it’s that there isn’t enough to go around.

Putting yourself in the broadcasters’ shoes, what would you prefer: a weekend featuring 8 NRLM games with a cumulative audience on the order of 3 or 4 million that doesn’t require any effort to get people to watch, or a single game between Australia and [England or New Zealand or maybe a Pacific nation] that will out-rate any of the individual club games but leaves 14 hours to fill and will require some dedicated promotion. Sure, there could be other internationals but once Australia is removed from the equation, the audience drops precipitously.

Taking that entirely rational rationale, and then applying the context of Peter V’Landys being desperate to do a deal with Nine in the depths of the coronavirus pandemic, giving in to every single one of the broadcasters’ demands, it’s no surprise to see the standalone representative weekend go by the wayside starting next year. It’s simply not possible for international football, or even a combination of internationals and Origin spinoffs, to fill the audience gap left by a round of the NRL, and the men’s Origin does better on a Wednesday night anyway.

You can add this to the list of intangibles that V’Landys didn’t get anything for giving back while extending the deal with Nine, along with the NRLW being paid for in-kind but not with any extra cash, moving all mens Origins to mid-week (limiting the opportunity for interstate hosting fees), the new Dolphins franchise adding more games, generally taking any opportunity to schedule games to minimse broadcasters’ inconvenience, irrespective of the time and cost to the fans at home or at the stadium, and agreeing to these terms for much longer than he’ll be around to take ownership of the situation. While we can continue to excoriate him for his spinelessness, none of that changes the fact that the stakeholders’ incentives are in no way aligned.

Other sources of revenue, like ticket sales or hosting fees, won’t move the needle much as the international games are usually poorly attended relative to matches with similar prestige. Meanwhile, the Kangaroos are paid at the same rate as the Maroons and Blues, which is commercially disproportionate, to put it mildly. The enthusiasm my section of Twitter – or really anyone who watched Fiji and PNG – doesn’t have a special dollar value that can reconcile the difference.

The problem at the heart of international rugby league is not just Australia’s on-field dominance but has considerably more to do with their off-field dominance. There are only three real broadcast markets for rugby league: Australia, England and New Zealand, and even then New Zealand is only 5 million people. If Australia doesn’t want to play, because no one can agree how to make it work, and everyone wants to play Australia, the whole thing falls in a heap.

The 2021 World Cup organiers are feeling exactly that problem as we speak as they seek someone, anyone in Australia, to buy the rights to their tournament. While the World Cup will heavily feature the Kangaroos and Jillaroos (mostly) crushing their opposition, games will be played at times that most Australians aren’t awake, which broadcasters understandably aren’t keen on. Super Rugby learned the hard way what happens when the inventory is keyed around the wrong time zones for a major component of the audience. A more diversified demand for international rugby league would make everything easier.

Of course, this is no solution, as old age will claim anyone reading this long before another G20 nation is bitten by the rugby league bug. In the meantime, the women’s game offers something of a band-aid. At the very least, there’s a second Australian team. While the Jillaroos’ are some way off replicating the Kangaroos’ ratings, just as the NRLW is behind the NRLM, that gap will inevitably close over time as people get used to the idea of women’s sports, the quality of play and professionalisation improves to parity and the kind of miosgynistic fuckos who complain about women’s football die off. For a particularly creative administration, there might even have been an opportunity for an expanded NRLW to help fill the gaps on men’s international weekends and vice versa.

I don’t have anything to offer that’s bold or innovative enough to resolve this impasse. I think it’s important to be honest what the problems actually are, even if they remain completely intractable, instead of pretending to start thinking about creating a window, maybe, if that’s OK with everyone. The shame of it is that a mid-season international weekend, with Origin spinoffs during the week as a lead-in, is a pretty good combination of entertainment, even if Queensland flubbed the whole week. I thought the powers-that-be in the southern hemisphere had landed close to a good formula, to point of wondering if they deserved praise, just in time for the same people to kill it off.

Perhaps the Gordian knot can only be unraveled by focussing on the end of season. If the administration puts in some effort and international football can prove its worth, despite player withdrawals and end of season fatigue and all the other obstacles that exist, then there could be a strong enough case for the mid-season rep weekend to return. If that’s the case, then the administration is actually on the right track but they’ll need to actually deliver something before I think about praise again.

The rep weekend is dead, long live the rep weekend!

*The kind of people who will argue endlessly about formats and decide that the politics could be easily solved if the kind of people who won’t let a cent slip simply gave up huge amounts of dollars and power. For the record, the international formats don’t need to be complex: bilaterals or best-of-threes mid-season, a post-season World Cup every four years, confederation championships every four years offset two years from the World Cup, and an international Nations League every other year, with four nations per tier and promotion between tiers, would be plenty. In fact, I’m sure the sport has had that something close to that arrangement several times.