By Jeff Wall, Crikey’s rugby league

If the respected Sydney Morning Herald writer, Roy
Masters, is correct, then long-term agreements for free-to-air and pay
television rights for rugby league will be announced as early as today.

It is known that negotiations between the NRL and Nine and Fox Sports
are well advanced, and as the NRL CEO has confirmed, occurring on a daily

If Roy Masters has been given the right drum, then what Nine will pay
for rugby league rights will be around $40 million a year – a massive increase
on the current paltry $13-14 million a year deal negotiated when the game was
on its knees at the end of the Super League war.

And the current $35 million a year deal with Fox Sports is reportedly
to be upgraded as well. But if the deals are announced today, or in the next few days, I will
be looking at the coverage question, not the monetary value. And for free-to-air viewers, there are some absolute “musts.”

First, at least one live game on free-to-air each week. That is
likely to happen.

Second, much better coverage for regional and rural viewers in
Queensland and New South Wales. Sadly, significant regional centres and many
rural areas get very poor free-to-air coverage, and, in some areas, none at
all. This is just not good enough. A remarkable number of NRL players began
their playing careers in these communities, and the game has been struggling in
the last decade or so in rural areas, and even in major provincial cities.

Third, coverage of the game in states such as Victoria, South
Australia and WA, and even Tasmania, must be improved – especially for Origin
matches at the Friday night match of the round.

It’s outrageous that in Melbourne, which has an NRL team, the coverage of
the game on Nine is pathetic. Late night and early morning replays, even of
Origin matches, is hardly going to promote rugby league in the southern

While some of these issues may be beyond the direct influence of Nine –
such as rural programming – surely the NRL has insisted that there be a better
deal for rural and regional viewers? We will soon find out.

It’s interesting that the pay television agreement is to be worth more
as well. And so it should be.

From time to time I get emails from rah rah followers telling me that
their game out-rates rugby league here, there and everywhere.

As an example, I have been chipped for claiming State of Origin is one
of the top rating programs nationwide. One reader pointed out the last Rugby
World Cup in Sydney had more aggregate viewers on free-to-air than Origin did.

Well firstly, Origin is at, or close to, the top of the ratings not only
every year, but three times every year! Also, State of Origin is shown live in just TWO States, whereas
the rugby world cup final was shown live in EVERY State.

But we should allow the rugby fans have their moment of glory… but that
is all it was – a moment!

On pay television, the NRL is the top rating program on Fox on a very regular basis. During the rugby Super 12
series when league and union went head-to-head on pay, rugby league was the
winner, often overwhelmingly so.

Seven can hardly be impressed by the ratings for its coverage of the
Wallabies. Apparently Seven’s bid for the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France was so
low it was told it should “retire from the process.”

And despite the AFL’s best efforts, the Swans free-to-air rating in
Sydney is not much to write home about.

Rugby league’s recovery from the depths of division and despair has
been spectacular. We will see just how spectacular when details of the free-to-air and the pay agreements emerge.

The game still has its problems – especially the parlous state of the
game in far too many regional and rural communities.

The massive increase in revenue Roy Masters has predicted must not be
tipped into the coffers of the existing NRL Clubs (ie players) alone. It
needs also be used to rebuild the game in the bush – and expand it in the minor
league playing states.

Let’s wait to read the fine print of the new agreements before being
too optimistic. While any deal is better than the current free-to-air
agreement, this is an opportunity that won’t come the game’s way for years.

One can only hope the NRL has got it right, or as close to right as

PS. And Nine deserves credit for deciding to show tonight’s Tigers v
Sea Eagles game LIVE, yes LIVE, so it can also show Lleyton Hewitt’s Wimbledon
semi-final against Roger Federer live. And the Tigers deserve credit as well
for allowing live coverage.

Perhaps the short term answer, or hope, for league fans is to have a
tennis semi-final involving Hewitt somewhere every Friday night.

Jeff Wall can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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