More than 12,000 people crowded into a hall at the Sydney Olympic Park last night to watch the Sydney netball team beat the best team from NZ in the inaugural Trans-Tasman netball competition, while just over 7,000 people sat wet and grumpy in the nearby Sydney Olympic stadium and watched St George thrash the Bulldogs 30-0.

Both games were seen on Pay TV last night. The NRL game attracted 124,000 viewers on Fox Sports 2 and the netball final 70,461 on the lesser watched Fox Sports 3. The League drew more viewers in Sydney and Brisbane, as expected. But in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, the netball easily beat the NRL game. The netball had a more evenly distributed national audience than the League.

That just about sums up Rugby league at the moment. It is being taken to the cleaners thanks to the conflict of interest involved in News Ltd’s half ownership of the game and its control of Fox Sports (Premier Media) and Foxtel.

The departure for France and a huge Rugby Union contract for Sonny Bill Williams, a young, talented but somewhat lazy Canterbury Bulldogs player has set off a media storm, with News Ltd papers in Sydney actively fanning the issue by promoting talk of him being a “Judas” or a “contract breaker” — his Union contract is in clear breach of his Canterbury contract. This is portrayed as a big problem for the game, a big threat to its future, something that threatens its long term viability. Dare I say it, a crisis?

But this talk is also coming from some excitable ones on the Fairfax papers and from AFL writers in Melbourne wanting to take a poke at the NRL. But Rugby League and Rugby Union have survived these situations in the past (that’s how League started in this country, by going for the “big money” that wasn’t available from Union) and they have survived raids on each others playing stars, and will continue to survive.

But what they won’t survive is the involvement of News Ltd in both codes. News Ltd finances much of the Rugby Union in this country, New Zealand and South Africa with the broadcast agreement for the Super 14 competition and the Tri Nations series. It also controls the broadcasting of the code in New Zealand through Sky. In League, News not only half owns the NRL but still controls the Melbourne Storm and the Brisbane Broncos. It shares the broadcast rights of the game with Nine (Seven in the case of the Rugby) through Fox Sports and Foxtel.

The half interest in the NRL and the control of Melbourne and Brisbane (and at one stage, the North Queensland Cowboys) flowed from the settlement of Super League, 11 years ago. News Ltd wasted over half a billion dollars in that abortive attempt to grab control of the code and give Fox Sports and Foxtel a leg up to drive subscriptions, much in the way BSkyB had grabbed an exclusive deal with the British Premier League soccer and used it to cement its financial and ratings success.

Murdoch and son Lachlan tried to do that here and Packer, the Australian Rugby League and Optus fought him to a draw which resulted in News Ltd selling a 25% stake in Foxtel (half its interest) and 50% of Fox Sports to Packer’s PBL. They then proceeded to take Telstra to the cleaners by organising the real money from Pay TV to be made at Fox Sports and using Telstra money to grow Foxtel.

What News Ltd and some in Rugby league are calling a crisis now is nothing compared to the intensity of the Super League wars and the residual bitterness.

NRL boss David Gallop was a Super League lawyer involved in trying to get players contracted to the Australian Rugby League to breach their contracts and move to the News Ltd competition (and clubs). Gallop has defended himself and claimed what Sonny Bill Williams has done is not the same as was done to the Super League. But he ignores the inherent conflict of interest that has involved News’s half ownership and involvement with at least two clubs.

The salary cap, which is supposedly the reason for Williams’ departure, is merely there to protect News Ltd and the clubs from being forced into a biding war for talent. That maximises the commercial returns (by minimising the cost of player payments) to the clubs and to the League. Brisbane and the Storm are playing their players less than they would get in an open market.

The real crisis in League is the corporate influence of News Ltd and the Murdochs. Until that is removed, nothing will change, not even the usual rubbish coming from the Daily Telegraph.

News Ltd and other media groups talk about the sanctity of contracts. When media companies respect every contract they have with an employee or supplier and honour it in full, that’s the day when the likes of Sonny Bill Williams should reply in kind. Until then, its hypocrisy for a media company, especially News Ltd, to urge respect for contracted arrangements. Remember Super League?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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