Crown Casino mogul James Packer’s bid for a slice of the NRL premiership-winning Rabbitohs — reported in today’s Daily Telegraph — raises serious questions. Packer is said to be close to buying the 37.5% stake in the club owned by another inheritee, Peter Holmes a Court, son of swashbuckling corporate raider the late Robert.

It is understandable that Packer, Australia’s third-richest man with a personal fortune of some $7 billion, would want a stake in one of the most iconic brands in the country. Already a shirt sponsor of the Rabbitohs at a cost estimated to be $1 million a year, Crown is expanding from Victoria into NSW and wants to leverage the largest membership base in the NRL.

Perhaps Packer spies an opportunity because unlike the most profitable rugby league clubs, the Rabbitohs do not have a licensed leagues club to support their football activities with pokies revenue.

Actor Russell Crowe and Peter Holmes a Court’s privatisation of the South Sydney Rabbitohs back in 2006 not only saved the club but on Sunday brought the perennial underdogs their first grand final win in 43 years. They have done everything right. Expat Holmes a Court’s desire for an exit has been well-flagged, and even Crowe conceded on the weekend he must pass on the baton at some point.

But another recent sale of a NRL club to a billionaire, when coal miner Nathan Tinkler bought the Newcastle Knights in 2011, shows how wrong things can go when a club becomes hostage to the business interests of its owner.

ABC’s Four Corners recently highlighted the risks of Crown Casino’s expansion in this country, including links to organised crime in the junket operators of Macau. What’s more, Packer is a fan of the Eastern Suburbs Roosters and used to be on the board of the club. Sure, his late father Kerry donated to Souths, but it should not be forgotten that during the Super League wars he urged a merger with Easts.

When Crowe and Holmes a Court bought their 75% stake members were told they would have last rights of refusal over any subsequent sale. If Packer buys in, members should have their say.

Peter Fray

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