“At our core, we are a football club and so we continue to be totally committed to providing our fans and partners with a successful NRL Rugby League team.” Bernie Gurr
The parting words of former Eels CEO Bernie Gurr ring true in these times more than ever. The NRL and each of the 16 clubs are in the business of rugby league, and whatever decisions are made must be done without losing sight of the game itself.
Facing an unclear future, when so much attention is rightly focussed on the economic challenges facing the NRL, it behoves the decision makers to ensure that they don’t miss seeing the wood for the trees.
The strength of the NRL is the quality of the product it sells – professional rugby league. The players that take the field possess an extraordinary mix of athleticism, skill and toughness, with the majority participating in the game since childhood.
The product would not exist without the foundations of junior football, and the ongoing development, coaching, physical preparation and player well-being programs.
Perhaps you can already read where this post is going.
When it comes to cost cutting, the NRL and the 16 clubs need to be careful that they do not diminish the product.
We already know that the players have accepted significant pay cuts for this year, and a reduced salary cap in future years is likely on the discussion agenda. How that transpires will be a matter for negotiation between the NRL and the Players Association.
Whether an edict is passed placing greater restrictions on football department spending by the NRL, or whether individual clubs cut their own expenses, we are facing the inevitable tightening of the belt.
But this is an area where we need to tread carefully.
Last year, Eels Chairman Sean McElduff was quoted as saying:
“The core business of the club is winning football games. Of course we want to win premierships but for us it’s about putting the right building blocks in place like well-being, roster management, that we know at the start of every year we are a chance of making the top four.”
This statement would be typical of most clubs.
Professional Rugby League has prospered as a spectacle because the coaching, support and care for the players has evolved. Decisions have been made, and staff have been appointed, with elite preparation and the physical and mental well-being of the players being the motivation.
We could consider NRL executives as paragons of altruism for such decisions and spending, but there is a commercial intelligence behind looking after the overall well-being of players.
Time on the sideline, for whatever reason, is wasted money. Furthermore, when it involves prominent NRL players, it diminishes the quality and appeal of the game.
Individual clubs strive for an edge when it comes to their support staff and coaching programs. Strong rosters are built by astute recruitment and quality development. Successful teams are usually those who are the least impacted by injury, especially during the second half of the season.
Training and preparation go hand in hand with “prehabilitation” – doing what can be done to prevent injuries from occurring or recurring. Should injury strike, the best medical and rehabilitation treatments are crucial in reducing time on the sideline.
In 2019, it was no coincidence that the Eels benefitted from their programs when both the NRL and Canterbury Cup teams reached the finals series. By the second week of the NRL finals, Will Smith was the only player unavailable through injury- and that was a fracture. With virtually all of the top squad available, improved results across both grades were achieved.
Of course, NRL programs run far deeper than just the well-being of elite players.
Before Peter V’Landys or Andrew Abdo lead any decisions about future cost cutting, the code already has a hurdle to overcome that could impact the product. The loss of NSWRL and QRL programs for this season means that pathways programs, from development squads through to State Cups, have been shut down. The return of community football will not involve these elite programs.
Unless they return to community level football, including Ron Massey and Sydney Shield, these players will lose a season of their development. Even if they play at this level, they won’t receive the quality coaching, physical preparation and mentoring which they would in a regular season. Depending on their current level of development, this could place them anywhere from 6 to 18 months behind where they expected to be coming into next season.
Even fringe NRL players in the top squads, who continue to receive coaching and physical preparation, will be impacted by the loss of match time in the Canterbury Cup, Jersey Flegg and Queensland Cup competitions and the loss of income associated with that. They are almost the forgotten players in the current scenarios, and it’s important that plans are in place for them. It’s not outside the realms of possibility that rationalisation could occur in Junior Rep programs.
We can probably expect that, at least in the short term, the NRL will continue to reduce its grants to the clubs. They will likely implement further changes.
There’s recent history pointing to limits being imposed on football department expenditure.
Coming into the 2018 season, the NRL mandated a $5.7m football department cap. Whether that is further reduced, or whether the clubs say they can’t afford that level of spending, is yet to be revealed, but it’s not a huge stretch to believe that it could be part of cost cutting.
Just how significant that becomes could shape the quality of programs run by each club.
The importance of maintaining quality football programs cannot be understated as it is the standard of NRL football which attracts the audience, which in turn creates the wealth needed to support its future. Not only does this impact the fortunes of individual clubs, it reflects the overall health of the code.
Looking at some basic broadcasting figures from the 2019 season reinforces the current market position of the NRL.
The 2019 NRL season rated around 88 million viewers at an average viewership of nearly 460,000 per game. The finals series added just over 12 million more viewers.
NRL fans were watching an average of 3.5 hours each week on Kayo, with some regular season games reaching nearly 70,000 users. On 9NOW, an average of 2.9 million minutes was streamed online every round. In total, 302 million minutes of NRL were streamed on Telstra Live Pass and the NRL Live official app across 2019 to the end of the regular season.
The crown in the jewel was obviously Origin, which pulled in approximately 9 million viewers nationally across the three fixtures. What a ratings bonanza rugby league is for Channel 9! Four out of the top ten highest viewed free to air programs for the year are rugby league broadcasts – the three Origin matches and the Grand Final. Additionally, those four matches occupy four out of the top five watched sports broadcasts.
Why mention these figures?
It’s very simple.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of millions of Australians. For some it has been life changing. It has commercially impacted the NRL.
However, something that won’t be negatively impacted is the audience for the game of rugby league. There may be a current short term hit, but when the product is back on the market, the people will tune in, crowds will return when allowed, and that aspect of the revenue stream will bounce back quickly. Incredibly, thousands of supporters have maintained their memberships despite no firm guarantee that they will attend another game this year.
Only one thing will prevent rugby league re-establishing it’s place at the top of the Australian sports market (or even broadening its reach) – and that’s a poorer product.
That may be a warning to the NRL or it might be a warning to individual clubs.
Be careful where you trim your expenses. There are aspects of any operation where savings can be found, but no industry will improve its market share by installing inferior methods of production. Those that protect their product, their programs, as best they can, will be the ones whose revenue streams will be the most resilient.
The game of rugby league, the players that take the field and the staff who get them there, are the code’s greatest asset.
We need to ensure it remains that way. Of all the commercially smart decisions that need to be made, it’s surely top of the list.