It was another year of high drama for the NRL, with the ASADA scandal and the off-field woes of Ben Barba and Blake Ferguson headlining a dramatic year for the code.
A QUICK scan of headlines hardly suggest a banner year for the NRL.
Falling crowds, seven tackle tries, the City-Country debacle, Israel Folau lost to the Wallabies, spiralling TV ratings, Queensland’s dominance … on it goes.
Ben Barba was seriously ill, Josh Dugan seriously silly and the ASADA drug scandal overshadowed it all as we became familiar with phrases such as CJC-1295 and GHRP-6, a collection of letters and numerals that looked like it belonged to a Star Wars movie.
The newly formed integrity unit worked harder than a prospector’s mule, with everything from assaults to cover-ups, allegedly, and back to assaults again.
But amid all that 2013 will be among the most significant seasons in the game’s history.
It will go down as the year that the game finally grew up.
Fox Sports’ Steve Hart reviews the NRL’s most damaging headline of 2013 – the ASADA investigation into the Cronulla Sharks.
While criticism of new NRL boss Dave Smith has been far and wide, with all of the above occurring under Smith’s watch, the NRL boss has orchestrated a dramatic shift in the game philosophy that might just be the making of the game as we will one day know it.
And celebrate it.
Smith is a very different NRL boss from those before him.
He realises there are others who know more about the shoulder charge rule, or how to fix the refereeing problem, and has employed the likes of Todd Greenberg to handle that.
But nobody knows finances better, or where in business terms the NRL has struggled to gain traction, surrendering tremendous ground to the AFL in the past decade as Australia’s premier winter code.
Under Smith’s watch, the game is finally taking back ground.
“This year the game will deliver a very substantial, significant surplus, the biggest that it has ever delivered,” he said.
“Now, all that is about financial security. And what we’ll do with that surplus is two things: we’ll use it to invest over the next 4-5 years across the whole game, to make it bigger and strong, number one. And number two, we’ll partly use it as a mechanism to protect against downside risks.”
The Cronulla Sharks have been handed a provisional fine of $1 million, while coach Shane Flanagan has been suspended for 12 months over the ASADA scandal.
For years the game has been living from one TV deal to the next, vulnerable to market changes.
“If the broadcast rights deal were to see a fall in value over the four or five years, because that’s the way the market goes, then at the moment the game has got no protection,” he said.
“So we will use the money that we’ve got very wisely, partly to invest in growing the game and party to make sure that we’ve got some protection for the inevitable down times that will come.”
It will surprise many that despite the criticism from various quarters of the NRL “wasting” the new broadcast on a new level of management, among other extravagances, not a cent of the NRL budget has come from the broadcast deal.
“The NRL will not take one dollar from the broadcast rights,” he said. “In other words, the $1.2 billion, all of it, will go to the clubs, states or to the investment fund I just talked about.
“We won’t take one dollar, we’re self-sustainable. And that’s now.”
The NRL is making money by restructuring its business model.
More significantly, Smith is forcing the club’s to change the way they do business.
Already St George Illawarra and Wests Tigers have been forced to change their business models to bring themselves in line with the NRL’s new demands.
“There’s a number of clubs where we’ve begun to reform their governance models, particularly if they’re in financial difficulties,” he said.
“We start to set out modern governance structures for the future.
“Part of the discussion has been to help them build strong business models and to help them, while working with them to build strong governance models.”
The days of hand to mouth NRL grants are slowly ending as clubs make the shift from being run like footy clubs, to being run like businesses.
“It’s what you’d expect a modern organisation to have in place,” Smith said.
“They’re big enough businesses anyway, and quite complex, and they’ve got a whole heap of risks within them, but equally we’re looking to grow them.
“So its as much about setting the foundation for the clubs in the future as it is about making up for any issues that may have occurred in the past.”
Parramatta Eels legend Nathan Hindmarsh expects ex-Canterbury Bulldogs fullback Ben Barba to receive some special attention when he faces his former side in round one of the 2014 NRL season.
So when the NRL records a 3.1 per cent drop in crowd figures in 2013, most forecast doom.
Smith dismissed the figures, as a true picture of the game’s growth, as misleading.
The NRL’s biggest season average crowd was 2005. The four leading clubs in 2005 were the four most supported clubs, Wests Tigers, Parramatta, St George Illawarra and Brisbane
By round 25 this year, they were the four bottom-placed teams.
“Frankly, if you don’t push the membership base the crowds will go up and down as they have for the past 15 years, driven by the subtleties of the environment,” he said.
Instead of driving crowd figures, Smith is pushing clubs to drive what he believes is a better indicator of a club’s wealth and health: memberships.
“The game hasn’t structurally changed a lot of the things it has done for decades, and that’s why it hasn’t grown,” he said.
“Unless somebody grabs the bulls by the horns, and does all of these things across this matrix of areas that need to be covered, unless you fix all of that and drive all of that, we just won’t get to the point where we have 25,000 or 30,000 (crowd average), which is what we want.”
The NRL has 228,000 club members. It wants 400,000.
“If we’ve got over 400,000 members we bring in excess of $50 million revenue to the top line of the clubs – not to me, to the clubs,” he said.
Troubled NRL star Blake Ferguson has been found guilty of the indecent assault of a woman in June, with his sentence to be handed down at a later date.
“So [there is] a big push to grow our membership base and to widen our membership base.
“That’s one example where we’ll help build sustainability and growth in the clubs.”
Everywhere there is change.
Club restructuring, a salary cap review, the introduction of the integrity unit.
All are long term changes, built for a greater game.
“Wind the clock forward a few years and the game will have financial security,” he said. “And when the game has got financial security you’re then able to create a continual investment cycle into grass roots and into other things.
“The game has gone through a rigid budgeting process this year.
“What I’ve just talked to you about is a fundamental shift for the next decade. And therefore the results will come through so you will get financial security. But you will also start to grow the fans and members into the game, so therefore crowds will naturally start to grow.”
They are cultural shifts.
The game has never done business this way before, and while small spotfires such as player behaviour steal the bigger headlines, and we constantly whinge about the game ignoring blights such as wrestle or refereeing controversies, the greater work being done is significant.
Yet Smith is mindful the core business is still the product on the field, and that the NRL must continually improve on the field.
That’s why Greenberg was employed, a role more traditionally like previous NRL chief executives.
The wrestle and its influence on the game really does matter to people. And systems have to be put in place so seven-tackle tries don’t cloud results.
And fans need to be better treated at games.
Having made great strides in one area of the business, its time the NRL got its act together in the other.
There’s no point building a modern Rome, if there’s no-one left to live in it.
QUOTES OF 2013
“If you want to dope and cheat, we will catch you. If you want to fix a match, we will catch you … We are well on the way to seeking out and hunting down those who will dope and cheat.” – Kate Lundy, then Federal Sports Minister.
“This is not a black day in Australian sport, it is the blackest day.” – Former ASADA boss Richard Ings on the drugs scandal.
“Quite serious … and scary in some ways.” – then NSW Sports Minister Graham Annesley.
“Ben Barba is ill. He needs some help. There are a multitude of issues in the reasoning behind us standing him down. Ben has lost his way and we need to help him find his way back.” – then Bulldogs CEO Todd Greenberg.
“In rugby I was out wide kicking stones with the pretty boys so it was a bit tough making tackles in the middle.” – Sonny Bill Williams returns to NRL.
“It is easy for those that haven’t played the game to sit there and say, ‘Jamie Soward didn’t have a go.’ Well, Jamie Soward has a go by putting on the jumper and walking out there. In my books, he has already had a go. He might have played the worst but he has already had a go. A lot of people out there aren’t Jamie Soward fans but I have played for NSW, won a premiership and World Club Challenge … My family, friends and teammates know the real Jamie Soward.” – Jamie Soward talks Jamie Soward.
“Just wanted to see for myself.” – David Furner, to Josh Dugan perched on the infamous rooftop.
“End yourself.” – Josh Dugan Tweets a Raiders’ fan.
“I’m not here to paint a f…ing picture.” – Cronulla’s Wade Graham, when ASADA officials asked him to paint a picture of his career, at their soon to be aborted interview.
“I think I have definitely learnt my lesson. I am blocking and deleting.” – Josh Dugan discusses Twitter.
“C’mon. C’mon, that’s ridiculous. That’s ridiculous. There’s got to be an investigation into this. Someone has to be accountable for this. And they have got to be accountable for the penalty count – 10-5 and there were a couple of even-up ones at the end.” – Geoff Toovey, telling it like it is.
“I haven’t spoke to Canberra, it’s as simple as that. It’s not on my mind. What more can I say? I am contracted to Parramatta. I haven’t spoken to anyone about going anywhere else.” – Ricky Stuart, four days before signing with Canberra.
“I will tell you what you want to do Dave; pull your head out of your bum and build closer links with the grassroots of the game, the people who will pay your wages for the next two decades.” – Ray Hadley to NRL chief Dave Smith.
“Satan has worked so hard through culture and society to remove the belief in a creator because without the understanding of a creator we become aware of our design …” – Newcastle’s Ryan Stig protests gay marriage.