Handled correctly, the NRL’s salary cap investigation into Cameron Smith can solve fifteen-sixteenths of the code’s problems as it heads towards an independent commission.
All it needs to do is recommend that Smith’s club, the Melbourne Storm, be wound up.
The Storm, like Paterson’s Curse, is a pretty-looking purple noxious weed. A very well-run and successful rugby league club, with three premierships in its first decade and a bit, a brilliant coach and some of the best players in the game’s history, Melbourne is the extravagant indulgence that is dragging everything else down.
First, some history.
Melbourne was founded as a sop, a gift to appease those who had tried, through Super League, to make the people’s game their own. The chief recipient was John Ribot, who in his playing days was a bullocking, exciting winger for Newtown, Wests, Manly and Australia. Ribot, a Queenslander, had formed a coalition with some Brisbane powerbrokers and News Limited to break the Australian Rugby League’s hold on the sport and was the founding CEO of Super League.
After two years of separate competitions, Super League re-merged with the ARL to form the NRL, partly owned by News. To keep the peace, Ribot was given a club in Melbourne, which he ran for its first seven years. It suited him, and it suited the new league to expand into the southern “market”.
Owned by News, the Storm was allowed to operate at a loss. Rugby league clubs have often depended on subsidies, but this was the first time the subsidising body was the code’s owner, a media organisation whose income derived indirectly from the fans of the other clubs. Melbourne became everyone’s gift to John Ribot.
The Storm immediately won a premiership in 1999, its second season, and established the kind of club culture that flourishes in an environment of exile. Nobody recognises or bothers the players in Melbourne’s streets, the club is their family, they have nothing to do but focus on their football, and they are encumbered by none of the old-boys networks or habits of slackness that take root in clubs that are hundreds of years old.
Run by competent administrators and utilising the best scouts, Melbourne has been able to spot players like Smith, Greg Inglis, Billy Slater, Israel Folau, Cooper Cronk, Ryan Hoffman, Scott Hill and Matt Geyer in their footballing infancy and hothouse them south of the border.
All well and good. Another two premierships and four consecutive grand-final appearances followed. A great success. Why, then, isn’t there an overwhelming push for a second Melbourne NRL franchise?
Because, for all of its onfield success, the Storm franchise is a failure. Melbourne has been haemorrhaging money at a rate that has only recently become clear. They have a tiny, if devoted, fan base which is not large enough to sustain the club. They have not been successful in attracting the media’s, sponsors’ or the public’s interest in Melbourne to the degree where they can be financially viable. They are kept alive by the largesse of News Limited. And now that News is pulling out of the game, Melbourne expects the other clubs to continue to help it win premierships at their expense.
As the books have been opened in the process of forming the independent commission, from the other 15 clubs there has been a collective: “Eh? Come again?”
Melbourne, with such deep pockets for players, coaches, staff and facilities, has been living beyond its means to the tune of about $6 million a year. News — which derives some of its income from the fans who subscribe to pay-TV and go to games — has been covering those losses. The main sticking point in the move towards an independent club-owned commission has been Melbourne holding out its hand asking everyone else to keep covering its losses and funding its success.
Now, think how this looks to the other clubs. Of every dollar they scrap and beg for, in sponsorship drives or marketing pushes or merchandise ideas, some of it goes to a club that is allowed to walk away with premierships. Every other club has to fight tooth and nail to remain profitable. Cronulla has never won a premiership. St George hasn’t won one for 30 years. Souths haven’t won one for 40. North Queensland and the Gold Coast, two good new clubs in real rugby league communities, haven’t won a premiership.
Meanwhile Melbourne, which has had its sugar daddy buying premierships for it, now wants them to keep up the inflow so it can continue to live beyond its means. Eh?
Every other club has to compete under the salary cap for the best players. Not Melbourne, which has been able to spend what it likes and — in the ultimate outrage — keep the best forward in Australia, the club captain, due to News Limited, through Foxtel, actually paying him again.
And for what? So the NRL can call itself a national game? Comparisons may be drawn with the benefits enjoyed by the Sydney Swans over the years. But at least there is a real, thriving interest in the AFL in Sydney. At least some players from Sydney, and NSW, actually play for and have played for the Swans. (Melbourne Storm’s count of locals: nil.) At least the Swans draw good crowds and the public’s affection even when they’re not winning.
The Melbourne Storm, even having sucked the best playing talent out of the other clubs, even being winners, still can’t pay its way. How is that fair? And how is it fair that fans of the other clubs have to pay Cameron Smith’s wage not only once, but twice?
The answer is simple. It only requires some brave souls to stand up and say to the Storm: you’re on your own now, and good luck to you.