When Big Kerry sat down to his muesli and skim milk this morning the Daily Telegraph story headed “The $40 Million Game” would not have made
pleasant reading.

In both the Telegraph and the Brisbane Courier Mail two of rugby
league “biggest hitters”, Broncos Coach, Wayne Bennett, and Souths CEO, Shane
Richardson, have intervened in the growing debate over the free to air
television rights for rugby league.

Their views are not to be taken lightly. Bennett is not only the
Broncos coach, he is also the national team coach, and has a column in one of
News Limited’s flag ships, the Courier Mail. Both he and Richardson
were key players in the Super League war of the mid-1990’s.

So it can be reasonably assumed their “intervention” in the television
rights debate won’t upset News Limited, a 50 per cent shareholder in the
National Rugby League.

The simple truth is that, thanks to the fallout from the Super League
war, Big Kerry was able to acquire the free to air rights for rugby league for
an absolute steal! At the time the game was deeply divided, and ratings
suffered as a result.

But times have changed, and rugby league has once again become a very
marketable commodity. Ratings are high – with the State of Origin games
generally in the top ten most watched programs nationwide…not a bad outcome
for a sport that’s dominant in just two states.

During the winter months, Nine generally trounces its rivals…and
high ratings for the Friday Night match of the round, and the Sunday afternoon
game, give it a big boost.

The current contract Nine negotiated back in 1998 when the Super
League/ARL settlement was reached is reportedly worth between $13 million and
$15 million a year. That’s less than the NRL now gets from Fox for the pay
television rights – and Nine gets the pick of the games to telecast each
weekend!

It’s up for renewal at the end of the 2007 season and Wayne Bennett and
Shane Richardson have already put a figure on the worth of rugby league – a
lazy $40 million a year!!!

And they are probably very close to the mark.

In his extensive comments, Wayne Bennett has taken up one of the points
I have made time and time again…rugby league is best served if it can
follow the lead of the AFL and share its free to air rights between more than
one network.

He has proposed that the NRL premiership, State of Origin and
International Series rights should be offered as three separate packages. (By
the time Kerry read that he was probably reaching for the phone to dial triple
zero!).

He has added that a Sunday afternoon grand final must be one of the
conditions of the next free to air agreement. Hear! Hear!

Rugby league has rolled over to Nine the same way Cricket Australia
has.

When Nine tells Cricket Australia to “jump”, the response is “hurdles
or steeples, or both Sir?”. Rugby league, sadly, responds similarly.

The decision to shift the grand final to the ridiculous and widely
unpopular Sunday night spot was not make at the instigation of the players,
clubs, or spectators, or even officials, but to maximise Channel Nine’s ratings
– for which the game received no financial benefit whatsoever.

The intervention by Bennett and Richardson mightn’t be welcomed by the
NRL hierarchy, though one must suspect News Limited itself won’t be displeased
at all. It gets half whatever profit the NRL makes each year.

The NRL CEO, David Gallop, has confirmed that the League has been
holding preliminary discussions with Nine over the last six months on
television rights.

Surprise! Surprise! Under the generous deal negotiated back in 1998,
Nine has the right to make the first bid when the rights expire, and the last
bid before a new contract is signed.
That might be par for course in television rights negotiations – but it
really puts Nine in the box seat unless the NRL negotiates very skilfully.

But I liked the response from the “Nine insider” to the Bennett/Richardson
shopping list.

“A Nine insider said TV rights were a good discussion point but rugby
league should remember that after the Super League upheaval the network was the
only one interested in league rights…(Kerry Packer) pretty much bailed the
code out.”

That’s true….but Nine got the game’s free to air rights for a
bargain…so Kerry’s “bailout” hardly wins him the “corporate philanthropy of the
year” award!

What the NRL needs to do is to have a long chat with the AFL which has
proven itself to be very deft at negotiating broadcast nights…and perhaps
retain the services of someone like the former AFL Chief Commissioner, Wayne
Jackson, to join its negotiating team.

Whatever fee he demands will be money well spent!

This writer will be keeping a close eye on negotiations for both free
to air and pay television rights (and even radio rights) for rugby league. Its
re-assuring to know that two of the game’s most influential men, Wayne Bennett
and Shane Richardson, are watching closely as well!

Outside Centre can be contacted at [email protected]