The fact that the National Rugby League still has not signed up its major sponsor for the 2007 season is a major embarrassment for the NRL, and the game. It again raises serious questions about the influence Channel Nine exercises over a game to which it has exclusive free to air rights.

Telstra has been the major NRL sponsor since 2000. It has been the Telstra Premiership, rugby league’s equivalent of the AFL Toyota Premiership. The AFL might be having a few problems with pay television rights, but its major sponsorship is locked in for 2007. And its total sponsorship stable is impressive.

For the NRL CEO David Gallop to say that it would not be a disaster if the competition started in six weeks without a naming rights sponsor is total nonsense.

David Gallop has become more comfortable in the CEO position in recent years, but there are times when his unguarded comments let him down. This is surely one such occasion.

With the promotional campaign for the 2007 surely due to hit top gear in the next couple of weeks, how does the NRL market the premiership? “The (insert sponsor’s name here) 2007 Premiership” perhaps?

Last year Telstra flagged that it was unlikely to extend its naming rights sponsorship, but after a very successful season for the NRL, there was every indication late last year that a new deal was just “days” away. Well “days” has become “months”, and no deal is in sight! And the official NRL trials are two weeks away tomorrow.

It seems the delay is partly due to difficulties over internet and mobile phone rights for NRL matches etc. Apparently both Nine and Telstra believe the rights are theirs.

The key point of contention is over digital video broadcast rights, a system not yet available but apparently “the way of the future”. If cricket followers think that Nine wags the Cricket Australia tail, then rugby league fans are entitled to think Nine’s the tail that wags the NRL dog!

You have to seriously wonder why? The new television rights deal between the NRL and Nine is better than the last one, but significantly less lucrative than the new AFL deal with Seven and Ten.

And you would think that Nine would want to see the NRL with a naming rights sponsor – with accompanying marketing campaigns – before the season which will expand its coverage by one match and give fans live coverage of a regular premiership match for the first time.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey