Forget about the Souths Rabbitohs being booted off Redfern Oval, or Lance Thompson “leaving” the Dragons, the real story
in rugby league today ought to be a worrying development with regard to radio
coverage in 2006 and beyond.

Rugby league
already comes off second best when compared to the AFL’s radio coverage, but there
are now signs the position is about to get even worse. The negotiations between the NRL and commercial radio
over future broadcast rights have been “protracted” and as the new
rights have to apply from the start of the 2006 season, now less than four months away, the powers that be need to
get on their bike.

The Financial Review reported yesterday that
the Macquarie Radio Network (centred on 2GB) will again get the metropolitan
broadcast rights, but apparently for a slightly lower fee.

Few will complain about that because Macquarie is the
top rating AM radio station in Sydney, and has certainly lifted the game’s
profile since it regained the rights a few seasons ago. But there is a problem, as under the current agreement,
Macquarie sells its coverage to the Broadcast
Operations network which owns 33 regional stations, mainly in NSW. That has
given extensive radio coverage to a significant number of regional communities,
in NSW and Queensland, and even in Northern Victoria.

If the Financial Review is accurate – and the article
is in such detail that it is clearly well sourced – broadcast operations won’t
deal with Macquarie, and its own talks with the
NRL have broken down. If that happens, then there is a real risk regional
centres will have no commercial radio coverage of the NRL, State of
Origin and
Test matches in 2006.

The NRL simply cannot allow this to happen. Forget about
the ARL – it’s an impotent burden on the game, and too busy at present with the
Kangaroos tour to be bothered with what ought to be its main focus – saving
the game in the bush.

And at the same time the NRL needs to put pressure on
the ABC to give regional and rural listeners a better deal. The ABC radio coverage is totally biased in favour of
the AFL. It has exclusive access to the News Radio network, now gets its
Saturday afternoon game broadcast in full on ABC radio in Queensland and New South Wales, and gives rugby league zero
coverage in the southern states.

And when there is a Union test match, or even a
Brumbies, Waratahs or Reds Super 12 match, on Saturday night, rugby league gets
punted.

Now all of this is partly the NRL’s fault. Its continued refusal to play a match on
Saturday afternoons opens the way for the ABC to broadcast the AFL match of the
day. And its appalling agreement with Nine that blocks
Friday night radio coverage does not help either.

I hope the NRL thinks about how vital the bush is for
rugby league. It needs to ensure regional centres get radio
coverage throughout the season. If not, then it will drive another nail in
the coffin of the game where it used to be strongest of all.