Rugby league got its big pay day this week, but in the midst of the fanfare surrounding the magic $1 billion figure for the new television rights deal, the fans of the game were somehow forgotten.
Don’t get me wrong – we can be proud of the fact that the game has attracted such an enormous figure from Channel Nine and Fox Sports, but when it’s pulled apart, the fans get a raw deal.
One of the biggest concerns for fans in recent years has been the delayed 9.30 game on a Friday night, usually involving the Broncos (this game is shown live into Queensland to maximise ratings for Nine in both key states).
Now whilst I love sitting down on a Friday night with a six pack of lemonade and two games back to back, I can fully appreciate that the late timeslot doesn’t sit well with the masses, particularly families with young children who are well in bed by the time the second game ends at 11.30.
The new deal has done nothing to address this, with the delayed 9.30 game to continue every week on Nine.
As a result, kids across the country are being robbed of the chance to see some of the game’s biggest stars and at times, biggest matches.
And if you want the proof, look no further than last Friday night’s television ratings.
The Bulldogs/Tigers match attracted 499,000 viewers in the Sydney market. Just 234,000 tuned in for the second match between Brisbane and Melbourne, despite it involving two top eight teams and some of the most exciting players in the competition.
Nine will continue to show Sunday football at 4.00, meaning that unless the NRL moves the kickoff from the traditional 3.00 slot for the match of the day, it will also be shown on delay.
So, whilst the bank balance at rugby league headquarters is skyrocketing, the fans have been dealt exactly the same number of games on free to air television, in the same timeslots.
The end result is that the free to air broadcaster of the highest rating sport in the country shows just three matches, and only one of them is live.
The two biggest concerns of rugby league’s fan base – the number of games on free-to-air TV and the delayed nature of those games – have not been dealt with, and if they were, Nine won out in the end and league chiefs caved in.
Another concern for fans for many years has been the timeslot of the grand final. As part of the new deal, the grand final will move back to a Sunday night position, a timeslot that fans complained about constantly, forcing a change to an earlier twilight slot in recent seasons.
Most surveys would reveal support for the traditional 3pm kickoff. However, that doesn’t suit Nine and its quest for ratings, so again, the fans lose.
The funny thing is that with serious offers from Seven and Ten on the table, rugby league’s new independent commission was in a powerful place to negotiate. The argument from the NRL, obviously, is simple.
We had to give up the same thing (three games in the same timeslots) and we got more money. Checkmate. If only it was that simple.
Yes, the money is the most crucial element here, but there’s off-shoot issues that have major ramifications into the future and this new broadcast deal fails to increase the game’s exposure on free-to-air television, and, perhaps significantly, has almost overnight seen the faith of the fans in the new independent commission take a huge hit.
Meanwhile, AFL, a major threat to rugby league in its heartland these days, has every single match shown live on pay television, with four games shown on free-to-air TV in Melbourne, two to three of them being live.
The new rugby league television deal is better than the last one, but let’s not be stupid, that was always going to be the case, even if the smart pickle who thought ‘Everybody Dance Now’ was a smart move was in charge of the negotiation process.
The real question when you look at these things is, what increased benefits are there to the game’s key stakeholders, being the fans.
The answer is hardly anything. The independent commission has failed to act to ensure that embarrassing issues such as Test football being shown on delay never happen again.
Interim ARLC CEO Shane Mattiske said on Tuesday that the “opportunities that fans have to experience Rugby League” would increase under the new deal.
That’s simply not true.
Whilst rugby league should be applauded for attracting such a significant figure for its rights, fans have every right to feel like they’ve won nothing out of what has been the biggest talking point in the game this year.