May 2020 Opinion

The NRL should dump Channel Nine

The NRL would be better off without Nine in the long run.

COVID-19 is putting the squeeze on all businesses big and small. While some are responding to the crisis with grace and support, others are seeing an opportunity to shore up their bank balances.

Channel Nine is one such entity trying to save itself $130 million. The moment the NRL shut down due to health concerns surrounding COVID-19 there were rumblings about the TV rights deal that funds the game going bust.

Nine went on the attack with a media release that used a gutless “spokesperson” to attribute quotes in which Nine attacked Todd Greenberg over the management of the game and blamed the code for not being prepared for a global pandemic.

Nine hasn’t just used its Wide World of Sports brand to go after the NRL, it’s adopted the use of middling journalists who don’t report on sport to spread its point of view widely in the Twittersphere. It has also utilised the supposedly independent Sydney Morning Herald as a mouthpiece to convey similar opinions as a way to try and mount continued pressure.

This also isn’t exactly a sudden attack, it’s merely a fast tracked tactic to reduce the amount it has to pay in future broadcast deals. This campaign after all was started by Nine’s Danny Weidler in August 2019 when he wrote a column stating that TV audiences had dropped.

Weidler chose not to go any deeper on his claim that TV networks had witnessed a combined 13 per cent drop in their audience numbers. He neglected the fact the AFL’s TV numbers had also dropped. He also ignored streaming numbers.

Streaming numbers for the NRL in 2019 largely offset the drop in TV audiences. Nine reported a peak of 2.64 million viewers watching the NRL grand final, labelling it one of the smallest ever and down from 2018’s 3.03 million. However, more than 400,000 people viewed the grand final via streaming, covering the drop in the TV audience.

In 2019 there was an overall increase in streaming numbers of 82% according to Nine.

The network also tried to undermine the NRL CEO, saying it believed his days were numbered.

Which is incredibly hypocritical of a broadcaster whose CEO is on three times the money Greenberg is on. That same CEO, Hugh Marks, has overseen a 33 per cent drop in the network’s share price which indicates poor financial management on his part.

People in glass houses and all that.

It should come as no surprise that Nine is trying to talk down the possibility of the game restarting. It definitely doesn’t want to pay for it.

It also seems rather convenient that right now is when the broadcaster has a problem with the way the NRL uses its funds. The NRL’s annual report is available on its website and has been for years, its financials have been public. It’s not like Nine was in the dark about the game’s finances, it just didn’t care about them.

The other criticism Nine has launched at the NRL, is that the broadcast deal is a bad investment for the network. Which seems odd, because the broadcast deal isn’t technically an investment. It’s a transaction. The NRL provides a product to Nine for an agreed upon price. There is nothing in the deal saying the NRL has to provide an uptick in revenue to Nine.

If anything that criticism highlights Nine’s lack of ability in marketing what is in fact its premier product. Nine’s four top rating shows in 2020 were the three State of Origin games and the NRL Grand Final. Its next highest show was Married At First Sight which is not being filmed at the moment.

It also highlights the fact that Nine is on incredibly thin ice itself at the moment and it is trying to divert attention away from it.

The broadcaster has debts totalling more than $800 million. The NRL, until the pandemic, had zero debt. Without the NRL, Nine is in a perilous position, but it seems intent on bloodying the very product it relies on for 30 weeks of the year.

Up until the middle of April, Nine did seem to have the upper hand at the negotiating table though. $130 million sat in Nine’s coffers, pledged to the NRL but which had not yet been transferred.

The NRL though turned the tables quickly and sorted a $250 million line of credit from London as a direct challenge to the broadcaster, saying it could now take its time negotiating and had the financial backing to relaunch the season without Nine’s money.

Nine is now seeking to undermine rival Fox Sports by requesting the removal of the 6pm Friday game and showing only two live games a week. The idea is preposterous, especially considering it would provide fewer games to fans, fewer money to the game and a drop in market share for Nine.

While Nine continues to try and strong arm the NRL, Seven has entered the fray and is sniffing around a possible broadcast deal.

Seven previously aired the 2017 rugby league world cup and has already poached the summer of cricket from Nine. Were Seven to manage to take rugby league, it would hold the three largest broadcast sports in Australia, effectively giving it a monopoly on live sport in Australia.

In the middle and western states and territories of Australia it could provide AFL on its main channel and NRL on a back up, flipping the broadcasts around for the eastern states and territories. 

Nine on the other hand, would be left to scramble together other sports to accompany its rather brief summer of tennis. And with Seven already having the contracts for the Tokyo Olympics, the NFL and Wimbledon, while Optus holds the majority of the international soccer rights, it would be slim pickings for Nine. 

It could rebrand from the Wide World of Sports to the Narrow World of Sports and have Phil Gould try to commentate on curling.

Nine, even with the NRL, is all tip and no iceberg. Without it, it may as well just be ice flow.

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