Tag Archives: rugby union

Big brain essay #4: The World’s Games

It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on pythagonrl.com. 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.

If I know my audience, you are likely Australian and likely have an interest in at least one, if not several, of European soccer and major North American sports leagues. While this is true for an increasing number of Australians, the interest does not flow back the other way. Europeans and Americans aren’t tuning in large, or even small, numbers to watch the AFL or NRL. Fuelled by huge broadcast deals and a pre-eminent position in G20 economies, these behemoths have the commercial and cultural power to cross borders and span the globe. Moreover, they have resources and, most importantly, the patience to do the work required to take over the world.

In the near future, European soccer is going to follow the US sports model. There is simply too much money to be made to do otherwise. The irony is that while many will complain about the Americanisation of their sport, as if the Football League wasn’t soccer’s answer to baseball’s National League, they will still tune in. The only questions that remain are when, which clubs add value and how much destruction will be done to existing institutions along the way. All this to feed the ever rising player salaries, and corresponding debt loads, of a sport that won’t accept regulations that American sports have long considered essential.

The NFL will take a huge leap in the near future, either by relocation or by creating new franchises, to expand into places like Mexico City and London, where the NFL has been laying the groundwork for decades. The NFL’s biggest obstacle in London is not logistics, which they absolutely have the power and money to overcome, or getting people to turn out for games but rather that many UK-based fans already have an allegiance to a franchise and the NFL is not sure if they’ll all come together to support a new London team. While the NFL has lost money on its trips to London, its earned some, if not all, of it back in improved broadcast deals.

The others in the US’s Big 4 may or may not follow. NHL already has a significant presence in both the US and Canada and has a counterpart league that spans from Riga to Beijing. Basketball is, depending on who you ask, either already the second or third most popular sport in the world and the NBA is its centrepiece.

Still, if the money is there, these leagues will find it, facilitated by an economic and political environment that demands that they do. The world seems to be structured to allow the economic winner to take all. Given there are only so many sports consumers in the world with a finite supply of money and interest, that spells disaster for the losers.

***

Cricket is riding a huge rising wave. The proliferation of T20 leagues across the world has been driven by the growth of the Indian Premier League from nothing to one of the most valuable sports commodities in the world in just twelve years. An influx of private investment to replicate that success has followed, raising existential questions: How much cricket is too much? How does cricket balance internationals, domestic and franchise commitments? What gives cricket its meaning?

The T20 explosion was predicated on the assumption that, if nothing else, Indian people will indiscriminately watch cricket and if enough stars can be incentivised to turn up, the rest will take care of itself. The subsequent failure of many these startup leagues puts paid to that lie but these are likely just teething issues as we see the emergence of a new order. It’s not too difficult to imagine a world where the primary actors in T20 are a dozen or more IPL franchises who simply operate year-round in different countries, under identical branding and shuffle their expensive talent to suit, taking the cream of broadcast deals to cover costs and then some, throwing a stipend to each of the national cricket boards.

That’s just one model but its main benefit is that it would be sustainable, not just financially but also in terms of fan interest. The end result would be less T20 (and the extinction of other very short forms of cricket) but it would be broadly centrally controlled so that it can be balanced with other more meaningful, but perhaps less commercially lucrative, formats and the institution of cricket would now be stronger for it. The tumult we see now is almost irrelevant – indeed, it is necessary to weed out solutions which don’t work – as cricket powers edge their way to the arrangements that will take their sport through the 21st century.

***

The grandest irony is that the Super League ethic, which created rifts in rugby league that still aren’t fully healed twenty-five years later, has been best reflected in the fortunes of the rival Super Rugby competition. Super Rugby created new professional franchises in an international competition and undertook a heavy programme of expansion to establish or further entrench union in markets outside of the traditional hubs of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Union’s commitment to its traditions, specifically by ring fencing Test level talent in their home nations (creating gross competitive imbalances) and by organising the sport according to hemisphere rather than time zones (making teams difficult to follow regularly and ensuring that a substantial portion of the broadcast content is effectively worthless), has undermined and temporarily halted this enterprising attitude as union is forced to reconsider its approach. It seems unlikely that something equally stupid wouldn’t have undermined a similarly progressive Super League, had that ever existed.

At the very least, union has shown an understanding of how the world around them operates, in contrast to their pre-professional ethos. Their reward will be to maintain their position as the King of Rugbies, a position Australian league fans tacitly acknowledge by referring to, and insisting others do likewise, union as “rugby” and league as “league”.

Australian Rules, Irish football and Canadian football make a direct connection to their respective national identities by giving people “their” game, which has had varying results. This puts an obvious limitation on the potential growth of these sports that is nigh-on impossible to break through without an historically important empire backing it. Baseball expanded from a local phenomenom in New York state in the early-to-mid-19th century to a professional sport in several east Asian nations that coincidentally house large numbers of US troops by the end of the 20th century (rugby league’s expansion to Papua New Guinea came about for similar reasons). Contrast this to the CFL’s spectacular failure to expand into the US in the mid-90s because it offered nothing that the NFL or college football didn’t already.

***

It was in vogue in the mid-to-late 2000s for road cycling to think it needed to model itself on Formula 1. Presumably, the UCI, cycling’s governing body, had engaged a marketing firm that basically told them this. In short, the season is too confusing, with too many events and too many different teams. There’s no narrative and star riders don’t turn up to every race. Further, cycling needed to globalise, which was code for running events outside of western Europe paid for by governments looking for a dusting of magic from being in proximity to road cycling, one of the world’s most corrupt sports where riders will openly negotiate on the road to exchange the right to win for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. Never mind the doping.

To address this, the UCI deleted the long standing World Cup, which united a dozen or so one day races under a season-long banner, and created the ProTour, which was going to include all of the biggest events, including one day races, week long stage races and the three Grand Tours with the biggest teams entering every race. The race organisers hated it, preferring to invite teams at their discretion. Some of the teams hated it, with their sponsors having no use for marketing their consumer debt products or flooring or mild sheet steel to China or Australia or California and so had very little interest in travelling halfway around the world for a new race with no prestige.

The UCI wanted to introduce a ProTour leaders jersey. The major race organisers refused to allow it to be worn. It was, in short, a disaster. It reached its peak when the UCI ran two simultaneous ranking systems: one for the ProTour and a separate ranking that included that and then other races because the ProTour was so hamstrung that it wasn’t won by the best rider in the world, even though that was kind of the point.

Even up to this year, the UCI has more World Tour (what they ended up calling the merger of the ProTour and world ranking systems) licences than World Tour teams. The sport is fundamentally different to motorsport in a way that is obvious to everyone with a cursory knowledge of either. It then made little sense to borrow F1’s solutions, thinking they will fix cycling’s alleged problems, like the structure of the season, while ignoring cycling’s actual problems, like corruption and doping. The UCI and other powerbrokers should have come up with their own ideas.

***

I think there’s a lot to be learned from looking at other sports, particularly if you had an interest in a suburban cottage industry sport that consistently fails to capitalise on opportunities or understand its place in the world. Indeed, these vignettes superficially teach us about lots of things – culture, history, tradition, politics, economics and all the other strands that makes up being human – at an angle that allows us to perceive insights that might otherwise be obscured by a more direct, and de-humanised, approach.

While I’m no marketing expert, I would think that trying to sell an identical product to a pre-existing and much better known one is an exercise in futility. My wife doesn’t know why there’s a difference between rugby league and rugby union, so I don’t know why we would expect Americans or anyone else to be across it. Without being cheaper or obviously better to the untrained eye (Americans aren’t comparing league and union, they’re comparing rugby to the NFL) and lacking a superior (or any) market position, how exactly is rugby league meant to differentiate itself from rugby union?

Can we at least talk about changing the name? Is an effete English private school a sensible place to derive the name of a sport which is barred from similar institutions around the English speaking world and has traditionally sought an audience in the working class?

You might argue that league is fundamentally more entertaining than union and that should be enough. I would then respond by gesturing vaguely at rugby league’s 125 year history of that marketing strategy, which has brought us to this point. Indeed, if you consider the world’s biggest sporting events – the Super Bowl, the F1 World Championship, the Tour de France, the World Series and all of soccer – being boring might actually be a pre-requisite to success and on field action is antithetical to a sport’s growth.

So if you were running a sport that considers itself separate to its very similar looking relative but has almost no presence outside of a handful of scattered locations and is in a life-or-death struggle with every other professional sport in the world to find a way to sustainably exist, how would you ensure its survival? Would business as usual suffice?

Super League 2.0 is not coming

Take half an hour and watch this.

The interesting thing about the debate is what’s missing. There’s no discussion about the purpose or meaning of Super League. There’s a large pile of cash on the table. The bigger clubs and RFL have plainly decided to accept this because they need the money more than anything else, and the deal supposedly comes with a ticking clock. That the RFL were reportedly prepared to accept the first offer without negotiating is extremely telling of the desperation involved.

On the other side, there’s the smaller clubs who feel owed something but are likely to be left in the cold or forced into shotgun marriages. Keighley had secured promotion and looked to be denied it by the creation of the Super League. Their insistence that their new grounds – capacity 10,000 – would set them up as a big club would be laughably small-minded if most Super League clubs didn’t operate along the same lines twenty-five years later. Featherstone Rovers, we are told, are the heart of a community ruined by industrial closures. Quite how such an economically disadvantaged community of 15,000 is meant to sustain a professional sports team in to the twenty-first century is not clear.

Instead, the RFL should have insisted that they needed more time to get stakeholders on board, develop a feasible structure for the sport and decide how to best invest the money. Off the cuff, all Maurice Lindsay can offer for the money’s ultimate destination is grassroots, developing the game and stadium upgrades with the influx of TV money – basically, following the Premier League’s lead a few years earlier – and it’s easy to see that being an enormous waste of money. Surely there isn’t a significant number of people who could be converted to rugby league, if only it were played in nicer stadiums.

Lindsay, however, was right that thirty-five does not go into fourteen. That there was ever an idea that that many fully professional clubs could be supported over such a small area is mystifying in retrospect. The intention, to merge existing clubs into new entities that would have a significant enough geographical and commercial reach to support a fully professional franchise, was sound in principle, as long as you didn’t look too much at details, like history, meaning and the defensive-borderline-paranoid psyche of the northern English.

The idea that a number of small English clubs with a hundred years of rivalry and basically nothing to show for it, would come together on an even footing to run a professional sports team is the kind of coked-up thinking that only the Super League war could throw up.

The mergers were dropped, Super League went ahead, the RFL got the money and not much else has changed for the English game in the next twenty years. The arrival of Canadian teams in 2017 and 2021 and a French club winning the Challenge Cup in 2018, signals the dawn of a new era – unplanned, unanticipated and somewhat unwelcome – that may well have been curtailed by the pandemic.

The golden opportunity provided by the virus to wipe the slate clean and begin anew has been wasted by the powers that be in both hemispheres. In all likelihood, the public bail-outs in England will only send more good money after bad and further entrench the status quo, not remove and replace it with something better. Defects in the game’s structure, writ large with the millions of dollars at stake and the attention of millions more, will remain, unaddressed.

In short, a Super League 2.0 is not coming.

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Ironically, the renegotiation of the broadcast deal in Australia has only served to highlight how badly Super League 2.0 is needed. The executives at Nine can read the writing on the wall as well as the rest of us. The virus should have created a large socially isolated captive audience for television. Instead, it is accelerating the trends that were in place beforehand. People prefer to watch what’s available online, which is orders of magnitude better than free-to-air and the good stuff on pay TV can be pirated or streamed or VPNed for far less than Foxtel are asking. The economic uncertainty is resulting in slashed marketing budgets, meaning that even if anyone was watching TV, advertisers can’t afford the ad time anyway.

The acquisition of the Fairfax stable of newspapers in 2018 has only made the pressure worse. It remains to be seen if there’s a long term future for traditional mastheads in a digital age. Repeated slashing of quality and staff in the face of repeated poor corporate performance is eroding what’s left of the major dailies’ brands.

In either case, newspapers and free-to-air television are relics of an ecosystem that has been irreparably altered by the Chicxulub impactor that is the internet. The traditional media is on life support and, at the right price, rugby league is one of the machines that go ‘ping’.

* * * *

I’ve long been suspicious of Peter V’Landys.

It wasn’t so much what V’Landys stood for because we didn’t know what that was in 2018. An unnamed someone decided to get the Andrew Webster to write and the Sydney Morning Herald to publish a puff piece and that rang alarm bells. The article was a hybrid of soft interview juxtaposed with “concerns”, which were unfounded and unattributed. It smacked of the same treatment lifelong deadshit politicians get before they challenge for the party leadership and become Prime Minister.

Journalists are meant to be smart, worldly and experienced but prove through their work that they do not deserve this reputation. You could argue that there is a higher game at play, and you’d be right, and that journalists are expected to walk a tight rope between speaking truth to power and maintaining access to the same power to do their jobs. But it seems here on the sidelines that the criticism of the powerful only ever comes when it serves the purpose of another power and almost never in the public interest.

Some have given up pretences entirely. Most would be better off re-positioning themselves as public relations officers for Newscorp or Nine and their interests and be done with it. It would at least be more honest and earn less public scorn.

It never ceases to amaze me how the media can whip up a frenzy apropos of nothing and, simply by whipping up the frenzy, make otherwise powerful and smart people do things that they’d rather not. It’s a damning indictment on the spinelessness of our leadership class that in the age of social media, the powerful aren’t able to completely bypass the traditional media, whose public trust is roughly on par with used car salesmen and real estate agents.

So it was, first with Peter Beattie and then later with Todd Greenberg. Beattie had stated that he hadn’t planned to be chairman of the ARLC for a long time but he obviously came in with a plan to shake things up quickly and decisively. He and Greenberg managed to get the international calendar to take some shape, had governments building new stadiums in Sydney to keep the grand final, had other governments paying for events like State of Origin and Magic Round, kicked off a profitable digital strategy and clubs and players were benefiting from a generous centralised grant and increased salary cap instituted by Beattie’s predecessor.

In short, they managed to make the NRL more reliant on itself and less reliant on the anonymous and not-so-anonymous bottom-feeders that have stifled the game’s progress for the last forty years lest it threaten their suburban fiefdom.

Then, in 2019, the drums started beating and like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Beattie had resigned and V’Landys ascended to the throne. Whether Beattie did not have the will to stave off the media’s inanity for another six months or simply had run out of political capital is not clear but it does seem like his work is unfinished. That Beattie’s legacy hasn’t been hugely tarnished by the same media suggests that he went quickly and willingly.

Once the chosen one had been crowned, he deigned to let us know what he stood for during his acceptance speech:

  • Suburban stadium redevelopments in Sydney
  • Tribalism, bringing it back
  • Getting referees in line, maybe going back to one
  • A nod to families
  • Getting more out of gambling companies
  • No mention of the international game or expansion

I’m not sure V’Landys even bothered to do a token reference to grassroots or bush footy. When pressed, we discovered that Brisbane still needed to be secured for rugby league, even though it has been played here since 1909, and that Western Australia was already a lost cause, a rusted-on AFL state. Much like the Melbourne Storm in Victoria, I guess.

The agenda strikes me as the perfect enapsulation of the Sydney boomer nostalgia bubble. I assume this is driven by faceless men behind the scenes, pining for a time when the footy was “better” and standing on a suburban hill with 2,000 other men was the pinnacle of the rugby league experience. With the passage of time, those who ache for the past forget the drawbacks but I suppose the authentic experience is regularly recreated at Leichhardt Oval. We are offerred the inferior product we know in lieu of a brighter but uncharted future.

Then, it was Greenberg’s turn. The knives were out and the cliches were flogged mercilessly. It was financial mismanagement supposedly. A huge head office and a white elephant digital strategy. Or maybe it was the response to the pandemic. Being reactionary? “Concerns” within clubland, possibly about the successful and necessary no-fault stand down.

Buzz Rothfield tried his best to gotcha and got absolutely banged in response.

It didn’t matter.

Everyone stuck to their lines, which for the professional communicators among them were incredibly muddled. I was suffering from cognitive dissonance, that itchy feeling in your brain when you try to process contradictory information before you realise what’s wrong. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t even a shade of grey, it was clear cut. The game was profitable and growing. Everyone was getting paid. What the fuck was the actual problem? Am I really being gaslit by the rugby league media?

Even now, journalists, commentators and other people whose opinion we know only because they are paid to fill airtime and column inches, are unable to write or speak about Todd Greenberg’s legacy without referencing financial mismanagement. Traditionally, when one is accused of something like mismanagement, examples are proffered and yet, cursory glances at the facts reveal something completely different.

If something gets repeated often enough, it becomes true. The history books will record that head office costs were “bloated” and that he had to go.

We’re left to speculate what actually is going on because the people whose job it is to tell us won’t or can’t. Seemingly, the closest anyone came to the truth was that V’Landys doesn’t play nice, which is insanely childish.

Meanwhile, Peter V’Landys is treated with the same reverence as the second coming of Christ because apparently, the rugby league media’s main takeaway from watching world events of the last five years is that a strong man with a penchant for action, or at least being seen as imposing his will, and no respect for consultation is a good thing.

The current situation has placed existential pressure on the broadcasters. The NRL may be in breach of contract, even though suspending play is the right thing to do in the face of a deadly pandemic. This gives the broadcasters leverage to negotiate down a big expense in the form of NRL broadcast rights. The NRL doesn’t have enough ammunition to put up much of a fight and it seems that V’Landys isn’t interested in doing so. The broadcast deal has been (or maybe still is being?) extended for reduced value. It was then revealed that Nine, not so much as hating the digital strategy, actually coveted it.

V’Landys sits at the nexus of a major power play, from clubs and broadcasters threatened by a brave new world that might get by without them. I don’t claim a conspiracy because its laughable these people could have planned anything two years in advance. The irony is that if the clubs could be trusted to cooperate like this, they could form a cartel to protect themselves and we might actually be better for it.

Quite who did what and what the ends are still isn’t clear. I’d speculate that V’Landys is treated as the messiah because he will lead the game back in time to a golden age that only exists in the mind of some powerbrokers. It could be the much more likely and grubbier alternative that people who take big dollars out of the game want to continue to take big dollars out of the game. Or both.

The full picture will be drip fed through selected journalists over time and we will see it when it will be too late to do anything meaningful about it, if we could even do anything about it now.

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Rugby began as a means to turn schoolboys into men. Rugby and the Muscular Christian ideology mirrored each other in the mid-to-late 19th century. When the Northern Union went its own way in 1895 and the Rugby Football Union another, the RFU doubled down on its elitism, deliberately avoiding the mass spectacle and the associated rougher element, creating a game to instil the same moral education that a boy would receive at Eton.

The idea that the private schooling system can produce moral individuals is laughable. Take a quick glance at the leadership class’ performance, from Gallipoli to Brexit, and report back on the results. The rich are always happy to sacrifice the poor to protect the rich and hate them for reminding them that their wealth is often unjust.

If you needed further evidence of rugby-as-morality’s failings, the collaboration between rugby union and the Nazi-aligned Vichy government in France during World War II and tours to apartheid South Africa in the 1980s should seal the deal.

After 1895, rugby league needed to appeal to the masses. Professional sport has to be entertaining to get people through the gate and, later, to turn on the TV. Its working class roots in the northern industrial towns of England and the suburbs and regional areas of New South Wales, Queensland and Auckland imbued a sense of meritocracy. It doesn’t matter who you are, just how well you can play.

As a result, rugby league clubs and leagues tend to be more inclusive and representative than the prevailing cultural mainstream. If you’re reading this, you will probably be able to rattle off a litanical list of milestones. That’s not to say league hasn’t had its moments. The reception of Olsen Filipaina and other Polynesians to Sydney rugby league and the naming of the Edwin Brown grandstand in Toowoomba strike me as two particularly gross examples. Still, it’s clear the culture of league is usually better than the culture around it.

Once the virus is over, fees for broadcast rights will remain critically important for both rugby codes. That union was a generally unappealing game did not matter for most of its history. If you don’t pay your players, then there’s no need to chase broadcast dollars by tidying up your product. Once professionalism was officially legalised in 1995, and it was clear that the world had moved beyond union’s notions of how society should operate, union became subject to the same market forces as league. The result is that union is following league’s evolutionary path to keep the ball in play for as long as possible, minimising scrums and technical penalties. It would not surprise me to discover that they are considering abolishing the lineout, dropping two players from each side and a means to limit possession.

As the two codes converge, already very similar to the uninitiated and now subject to the same selective pressures, we start to wonder what rugby league, the somewhat smaller and significantly less powerful of the two codes, will do to make its mark in the world. If people don’t know the whole story, then there is little hope for league’s long term survival. Moreover, in a globalised, kleptocratic, winner-takes-all economic system, we don’t know whether rugby will be able to find breathing room in the face of North America’s big four and European soccer becoming world-spanning sporting behemoths.

On rugby’s new frontiers, people will tell you both codes of rugby get along and there’s no code wars. The same people will contribute “why can’t we all just get along?” to the political discourse, seemingly unaware that some are campaigning for their very lives in the face of prejudice, inequality and fascism. It is the same attitude but, it should go without saying, the stakes are many orders of magnitude less significant in sports than politics.

Still, if there were no stakes, then the rugby codes would merge and we could get on with working out how to co-exist with other sports. That will never happen because there are stakes and wounds and history that have not been resolved. It is not an irrational take that union is the embodiment of late 19th century aristocracy, elitist and exploitative, cosy with fascism and league should never reconcile with that world view. The irrational take is that these things don’t matter, they’re in the past and you’re being childish by having feelings about them.

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You might wonder why I’ve bothered to tell you these stories and what brings together these disparate thoughts. Over the off-season, I wrote approximately this same piece but it was lengthier, unedited and all-around insane. It will remain unpublished.

But there’s a lot of Big Stuff happening right now. It helps to talk about it and helps fill the time until rugby league’s imminent return. It’s also interesting to me at least to consider how the past and the present might inform the future.