Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

IN amongst all the huffing and puffing this week, which had rugby league on the brink of civil war, was a small detail that Sporting Declaration found rather enlightening.

According to the Daily Telegraph, Sydney-based NRL clubs have lost a combined total of around $36 million this year.

That figure, incidentally, does not surprise this columnist. An informed source told me recently that if you also include the seven clubs based outside Sydney, that figure is getting close to $50 million.

Just hold that thought – 50 million bucks. Who picks up the tab?

The clubs who are supported by a licensed premises can thank their lucky stars for the cash cow known as the poker machine.

Other clubs rely on wealthy private owners to sign a cheque. The Knights and Gold Coast go cap in hand to the governing body.

Parramatta have reportedly lost the most money – $11 million – a large proportion of which has been spent on legal fees and player payouts. Given that premiers Cronulla lost an estimated $500,000, the obvious question is did any club break even, let alone make a profit?

All of which prompts two contrasting conclusions.

First, the NRL needs to provide clubs with a greater share of the massive deal done with television broadcasters.

Alternatively, the clubs need to stop wasting money.

And that, in a nutshell, seems to be the crux of the issue that appears likely to culminate in a lynch mob throwing ARL Commission chairman John Grant on a bonfire.

The clubs are demanding a dramatic increase in funding. The powers-that-be have baulked at this and apparently reneged on a promise to raise the annual grants to around 130 per cent of the salary cap.

And as the power struggle continues, I can’t help thinking there is a common-sense solution.

Give the clubs grants that cover 130 per cent of their salary cap. But put any proposed salary cap increase on hold for the time being.

This suggestion, of course, is likely to go down like a lead balloon with the players, who traditionally argue that they provide the entertainment and hence are entitled to a decent slice of the pie.

Fair enough. But just consider the following numbers.

The minimum wage in the NRL these days is $80,000. The average salary is close to $200,000.

The elite-level players are earning $500,000 and beyond. A handful are probably on $1 million a year, including endorsements.

Origin players are paid $30,000 per interstate game, and the Kangaroos and Kiwis pocket $20,000 a Test.

It’s not bad coin for what is essentially a boutique sport.

Rugby league has never been a more lucrative career path. Yet there has been a push to increase the salary cap from its current $6.8 million to $10-11 million in 2018, when the new $1.7 billion broadcast deal kicks in.

That represents an overall pay rise of around 50 per cent for players. And what exactly have they done to deserve it?

The argument, once again, is that they are the entertainers and without them, there would be no show. The TV companies need their product to sell satellite dishes and advertising.

But the broadcasters aren’t paying billions out of the goodness of the hearts. For their investment, they get a dominant say in the fixture list and it is the average fan who suffers, when his or her team are scheduled to play on a Thursday night, or in a split round, minus their rep stars, during the Origin twilight zone.

Moreover, the cost of supporting a team has never been higher.

In 2018, when the TV income starts flowing, will season tickets become cheaper, or food, drink and parking at stadiums, or replica jerseys, which currently retail for $160?  Will the fans receive any form of subsidy?

And how much of the TV deal is likely to filter down to grassroots level, to help junior clubs pay for team kits and equipment, or reduce registration and insurance fees?

Admittedly, I shouldn’t just single out the players. Consider, too, the vast sums outlaid on the executives and football staff employed by NRL clubs.

According to one report I read this week, the average spend on a football department has increased from $1.8 million in 2012 to $6.5 million this season.

TARGET MAN: ARL Commission chairman John Grant thinks he can survive a vote of no-confidence from NRL clubs.

TARGET MAN: ARL Commission chairman John Grant thinks he can survive a vote of no-confidence from NRL clubs.

The clubs might argue that all this is necessary and potentially affordable, if only Grant would open the purse strings.

Yet the history of rugby league, especially in the modern era, would suggest that no matter how much clubs receive in grants each year, they will continue to exist above and beyond their means, hoping that a few extra dollars invested here and there will provide some advantage on game day.

And no matter how much more the players are paid, or how much cutting-edge sports science is introduced to support them, I see little evidence that the game, as a spectacle, is improving.

Likewise, which executives are justifying their wages by running their clubs on a sound financial basis?

Meanwhile, the fans – who live in the real world and have to manage far more modest budgets – can only shake their heads.

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