The tennis over, the cricket is boringly predictable … so let the footy season begin with some live coverage!

The Australian Open is over, the pajama game is boringly predictable, and boring, but fortunately both the AFL and NRL seasons are just around the corner.

The “unofficial” NRL trials for the 2005 season begin this weekend, though some clubs won’t start until later in February……….and who can blame them given the oppressive heat NSW and Queensland have been enduring of late.

But the season does actually kick on this weekend when the annual farce, the “World Club Challenge”, takes place in Leeds between the Leeds Rhinos and the Canterbury Bulldogs.

It’s a farce because it in recent years has taken place in the depth of the English winter, and before the start of the season here. To say that Australian teams have been “underdone” in recent years is an understatement!

And it seems the game’s hierarchy thinks it a farce as well, for how else could Sean “Mr Bumstead” Hampstead get the job of refereeing the match? (His performance during the 2004 season, and especially the representative season was, shall we say, less than adequate!)

The Bulldogs might just be different, and seem to be taking the challenge more seriously than most. Let’s hope so.

With the 2005 domestic season just a round the corner, the NRL has been dribbling out stories that it hopes will placate critics, and the NRL clubs. The propaganda from the NRL on at least one of these matters needs to be scrutinised.

The latest piece of propaganda, and probably fiction, is that the NRL might bring forward negotiations on free to air television rights and is open to a “split” arrangement along the lines of the AFL new – and very successful – arrangement.

There is one big problem for a “split deal” in the NRL. Under the existing contract, Nine has the last right of offer, and counter offer, and, one can expect that unlike Seven which gave up its AFL rights without much of a fight, Nine will do everything possible to protect one of its best rating exclusive deals and apparently, one it negotiated for a song.

The NRL must surely be embarrassed that the free to air rights apparently went so cheaply, so much so that the pay television rights held by Foxtel are worth significantly more to the game!

This writer believes strongly that a “shared” free to air agreement offers the best hope – and probably the only hope – for long suffering viewers who have been getting the “coke and sars” from Nine for years.

Whatever happened to the suggestion that, with the demise of Burke’s Backyard, Nine might show the Friday night match of the round live? As I predicted (and it’s required zero wisdom to do so) absolutely nothing!

Nine is not going to put the viewers interests first when the viewers tolerate (there is no other choice of course) a replay that is chock a block full of ads and promos and therefore does not end until about 11pm, way past the bedtime of the kids who the game needs to keep hold of in the face of a growing challenge from other codes, and sports.

And it has a captive audience for the Friday night game – live radio coverage is banned (an appalling, grubby arrangement that the NRL refuses to put a stop to) and no pay TV coverage until the next day.

You would think that the NRL would be putting maximum pressure on Nine to show the Friday night match live given that it would rate through the roof (just like the live State of Origin games do) – thereby boosting the game’s “value” when it comes around to negotiating television rights!

But no, the NRL, and some of the clubs, have used the excuse that a live telecast would “affect” crowds. Apart form the fact the claim is dubious, live coverage of AFL games has hardly damaged the game and the AFL allows at least two games to be shown live each weekend.

(For the uninitiated, the only NRL games that are shown live on Nine are the State of Origin, and the Grand Final, though in 2004 the semi finals, and finals were shown live with no detrimental impact on crowds).

So if the NRL is really serious about “growing” its product, it will put pressure on Nine now to make the Friday night the live extravaganza it deserves to be and it will end the totally indefensible ban on the radio broadcast of the match.

If Nine says no, then that factor can be taken into account when the new agreement for

free to air coverage is negotiated (it expires in 2007).

The premiership season starts in March, so the NRL needs to waste no time in trying to secure a review of the existing agreement to allow one, even just one, live free to air NRL match each week.

And there is a second reason why it should do so – Nine has been taking a hammering in the ratings over the last couple of weeks thanks to the success of Seven’s Australian Open coverage, and the predicable one day cricket series.

Nine must be hoping the NRL season come sooner rather than later!

My campaign to get at least one premiership match “live” each week almost certainly won’t succeed. But at least I am drawing attention to a totally unacceptable situation, and perhaps just perhaps, the NRL will be embarrassed enough to insist on it as part of the next free to air contract with Nine, or Seven, or Ten, or any combination of the three!

The appointment of new NRL Directors is welcome, more’s the pity that the decision on television rights is taken by the “NRL Partnership Committee”. Whatever that is.

If you go to the NRL website, you will note that a new NRL web site is under construction (and will be ready by March). Is it asking too much for the new site to give the kind of corporate information that is “par for course” for public, and even not so public, companies?

The construction of a new NRL web site is long overdue. The current site is grossly inferior to those of the AFL and Australian Rugby Union and does not do just to the game.

Next week I will begin my 2005 season preview and have a particular look at player movements during the off-season, which is often a good guide to the way the season ahead will go.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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