August 2020 Featured

What do you get for one million dollars?

Are million dollar players worth the investment?

Million dollar players. They sound pretty run of the mill these days, don’t they?

They’re the superstars charged with winning matches and guiding teams to premierships.

But do they follow through on that promise, or does their pay packet cruel their club’s chances at recruiting quality around them?

For this piece, we’ll be looking at players who have signed contracts that have seen them paid $1 million per year. Let’s face it, you can sign a four year contract at $250,000 per year and it’s technically a million dollar deal, but that’s not what we’re discussing here.

Origins of million dollar deals

By the time the mid-90s rolled around, rugby league players were mostly professional. They were able to commit to the competition full time and were paid enough to avoid working a day job like the many that had come before.

Then, in 1995, Super League came knocking and upended the price of contracts.

Take then-rookie Brisbane Broncos winger Wendell Sailor for example. His contract under the ARL was worth $75,000 for the 1995 season.

Super League power brokers offered him a three year deal totaling $1 million across that period.

The ARL counter offered with a three year deal totaling $2 million. 

In the end Sailor signed with Super League and stayed at his beloved Broncos.

Meanwhile in Sydney, Penrith Panthers star Brad Fittler chose to stay with the ARL but in so doing, shifted to the Sydney Roosters and became the first true million dollar player in rugby league history.

Brad Fittler in his Roosters days

Fittler netted $1 million per season with the Roosters and the ARL salary cap went from $1.5m in 1995 to $5 million in 1996.

Those are large deals in today’s terms. Back then, they were astronomical.

But by the end of the Super League war and the consolidation of the ARL to see the combined NRL born in 1998, monetary values settled down.

The two sides had thrown so much money around in a sporting economy not prepared for these kinds of deals, the contract prices had to come down.

In 1998 the salary cap had dropped to $3.25 million. Those million dollar players were no more. At least for a while.

The million dollar players

Throughout the 2000s the salary cap was too low for teams to park $1 million on one player. Although that didn’t stop clubs from trying, with almost every club fined for one type of salary cap breach or another.

The most egregious of course being Canterbury’s 2002 breach which saw them stripped of 37 competition points. The Warriors were also sentenced to starting the 2004 season on minus four points for breaches.

In what may have been an indication of the near future, the Melbourne Storm were also fined on three occasions in a four year period for salary cap breaches, one of them for paying players illegal third party payments.

But with the salary cap not breaking through the $5 million barrier, no team was going to try and legally pay players $1 million per season and see 20 percent of their cap poured into a single man.

That was until 2012. When it was announced the salary cap would be jumping by $1.4m for the 2013 season.

From 1998 to 2012, the cap had risen by roughly $100,000 each season.

A new broadcast deal meant the NRL handed the clubs $7.1 million in total per season, $5.85 million of it for the salary cap.

Parramatta’s Jarryd Hayne became the first beneficiary, inking a lucrative multi-million dollar deal.

The Cowboys moved to quickly to secure the future of their club by locking up Johnathan Thurston on $1 million per season.

The Melbourne Storm too were rumoured to upgrade Cameron Smith to seven figures per year, although it’s unclear if this was true given teammates Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater could also have commanded that pay packet.

Moving further into the 2010s and million dollar deals became more regular.

Daly Cherry-Evans signed a long term deal with Manly.

Jason Taumalolo signed a 10 year deal with the Cowboys.

Jarryd Hayne was reportedly offered a monster deal by the Eels to stay in Blue and Gold but he defected to the NFL. Not to worry though, the Gold Coast Titans would sign him to a million dollars a season when he returned to the NRL.

With Hayne departing the Eels, they used his money to lure Kieran Foran from the Northern Beaches.

Currently, it’s believed there are a fair number of million dollar players including:

  • Kieran Foran (Bulldogs)
  • Shaun Johnson (Cronulla)
  • Ben Hunt (Dragons)
  • Ash Taylor (Titans)
  • Jack Bird (Broncos)*
  • Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (Warriors)
  • Nathan Cleary (Panthers)
  • Jason Taumalolo (Cowboys)
  • James Tedesco (Roosters)
  • Daly Cherry-Evans (Manly)
  • Kalyn Ponga (Knights, 2021)
  • David Fifita (Titans, 2021)
  • Anthony Milford (Broncos)
  • Michael Morgan (Cowboys)

*Bird signed a four year, $4 million dollar deal although he’s listed at earning $900,000 this season.

What does a million dollars actually get you?

Ideally, that million dollar player nets you a premiership. That’s a return on the considerable investment.

However, looking at the names above, only a couple of those players are in sides you’d consider premiership contenders.

Tedesco is at the Roosters. 

Nathan Cleary’s Penrith currently sits in the top four and Kalyn Ponga’s Newcastle are also top four material when the side is fully fit.

However, for the rest of them, their million dollars seems like a curse, perennially pushing their sides to underachieve.

Paying a player $1 million per year is an extreme measure when you think about it. That’s 10 percent of the salary cap in one player.

It means it is hard to build quality around that player.

The Eels learnt it the hard way. Paying Hayne what was effectively 20 percent of their cap at the time ended up forcing them into paying others under the table and that came crashing down on them in 2016.

The Titans did it once with Hayne, did it twice with Ash Taylor, now are trying their luck for a third time with David Fifita. In that time they have made one finals series since 2016, and that was mostly without Hayne.

Brisbane have put themselves in a tough spot with Bird and Milford. Two million dollar players. One is injured, the other is severely underperforming and their young forward pack is going to need to be upgraded if they want to retain them.

Manly are also beginning to find out what happens when you have a $1 million dollar player and two not far behind in the Trbojevic brothers. Their top 13 is good. Outside that and the quality quickly drops off.

In fact their win percentage without Tom Trbojevic is horrendous and should be very concerning given halfback Daly Cherry-Evans is the highest paid player in the game at the moment.

In many ways, those million dollar contracts are robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Clubs are sinking essentially the fate of their side into one or two players. If those players are injured or out of form, there goes that side’s chances.

The issue that seems to come with these million dollar contracts is longevity. Teams seem to think that if they sink $1 million into a player it has to be a long term deal.

For the first couple of years it’s okay as generally there isn’t much movement on the contract front. But as other contracts end, players want upgrades, the club tries to recruit, those clubs are constrained by the fact they have 10 percent of their cap permanently wrapped up in one player.

Those long term deals also mean clubs are hesitant to drop those players or move them on.

Million dollar results

Of the million dollar players to have played in the NRL, only a few have won premierships. Cameron Smith netted one in 2012 and a second in 2017.

Jonathan Thurston and Jason Taumalolo secured their famous victory in 2015.

Cooper Cronk repaid the Roosters and then some, winning back to back titles in 2018 and 2019.

Those investments all paid off. But the question to ask, is why? Why did those teams with million dollar players win premierships when other teams with similarly priced players haven’t?

Taking the Roosters as an example, they built their 2018 and 2019 roster specifically to win premierships.

They released players like Aiden Guerra, Mitchell Pearce, Blake Ferguson and Michael Jennings to free up cap space either before or during that period. 

They debuted players like Matt Ikuvalu, Joseph Manu, Victor Radley and Latrell Mitchell who could not command the pay they do now.

In other words, they had a plan and they stuck to it. They built their side around the million dollar players and had a way of maintaining quality either through quality recruitment or good juniors.

The Cowboys did something similar although they have quickly fallen off the wagon. With millions tied up in both JTs they were unable to hang onto talents such as Kalyn Ponga and Villiame Kikau, both of whom were in the North Queensland junior system.

And that’s where the million dollar player plan begins to fall over. 

Clubs that blindly throw millions of dollars at one or two players without the supporting cast around them end up an average side.

Below is a table of million dollar players and what their sides have achieved while that player has been on a million dollar contract.

PlayerClubResult
Jarryd HayneParramatta & Gold Coast1 wooden spoon (2013), 1 finals series (2016)
Cooper CronkRoosters2 Premierships (2018 & 2019)
Cameron SmithStorm1 Premiership (2017)
Jason TaumaloloCowboys1 Premiership (2015)
Johnathan ThurstonCowboys 1 Premiership (2015)
Daly Cherry-EvansManly2 finals series (2017/19)
Angus Crichton ****Roosters1 Premiership (2019)
Ben HuntDragons1 finals series (2018)
Kieran Foran*Bulldogs0 finals series
Roger Tuivasa-SheckWarriors1 finals series (2018)
Ash TaylorTitans0 finals series
Nathan Cleary**Panthers0 finals series
Jack Bird***Brisbane2 finals series (2018/19)
Shaun JohnsonSharks1 finals series (2019)

* Kieran Foran is reportedly about to take a pay cut on his next contract

** Nathan Cleary has only spent one season as a million dollar player

*** Jack Bird has been injured for the majority of his million dollar deal

**** Angus Crichton is no longer on $1 million dollars per year

I’m not suggesting it’s a single player’s fault as to why their team doesn’t win a competition when they are on a million dollars a season. But it appears that million dollar players tend not to be consistently in and around premiership winning sides.

The reason for that could lie in the depth of a squad. With 10 per cent of the salary cap in one player, clubs then have to be very frugal with the remainder of their cap. They can still generally field a strong 13-17 players, however teams go through close to 30 players a season.

If there is a large drop off between the top 17 and the back-up available then injuries can see the end of that side’s chances.

At the time of writing there is only one team in the top four without million dollar players and that’s Parramatta. Their highest paid player is Mitchell Moses on $830,000 this season. With the extra money available they’ve been able to recruit players like Ryan Matterson and Reagan Campbell-Gillard while upgrading the likes of Dylan Brown, Clint Gutherson and Reed Mahoney.

Penrith present a different option. While they’ve invested heavily in Nathan Cleary, their strong junior system has allowed them to put together a team on a tight budget. The challenge is hanging onto the good players when their values go up and opposition teams begin circling.

In the past they’ve had to release the likes of Wade Graham, Luke Lewis and Michael Jennings.

Melbourne have gone all in on Cameron Smith. It isn’t hard to see why, although without Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater there is probably a little more money to throw around these days than there used to be. Craig Bellamy has also forged a reputation from taking discarded players and turning them into weapons, so the Storm can manage player turnover.

The Roosters meanwhile have Tedesco as their marquee and have Angus Crichton on a sliding scale meaning they are paying him less than $1 million this season. They cut a fair chunk of change from their cap this year by allowing Latrell Mitchell to head to Souths. Josh Morris has proved a more than capable replacement and he’s on far less.

The retirement of Cooper Cronk also alleviated some cap pressure, with replacement half Kyle Flanagan on nowhere near Cronk’s salary.

That being said, the Roosters have made their name on throwing considerable money at players they want and then working out how to fit them into the salary cap later.

With all of that said though, that’s only three teams out of the 11 with million dollar players that are in with a shot of winning the Premiership this year.

Brisbane, North Queensland, Canterbury, the Warriors, Dragons and Gold Coast fill the bottom six positions at the time of writing. They all have million dollar players. None of them look like threatening the competition any time soon. 

For all of them a common theme emerges for five of them. I’m excluding the Dragons here. And that’s poor recruitment and retention. 

Brisbane have a young and exciting forward pack but their outside backs and halves leave a lot to be desired. Milford’s continued poor showings indicate he’s been a poor investment, while the Broncos have not replaced the experience of players like Corey Parker, Sam Thaiday and Andrew McCullough who have all departed in recent years – McCullough is set to return next year.

The Cowboys went all in on JT13 and Michael Morgan. JT13 is living up to his price tag, Morgan has been injury prone however, the Cowboys have shown far too much loyalty to the players that won them the competition in 2015. You also have to question the wisdom of signing Valentine Holmes for the price they did, knowing he wouldn’t be in peak condition.

They had a case study to learn from in Jarryd Hayne but they seemed to ignore it. Poor management of Holmes’ ankle injury also sees him out for an extended period.

The Warriors haven’t signed a marquee player since RTS defected from the Roosters. While he has done everything he can to drag his side over the line, winning the 2018 Dally M medal, he doesn’t have a great supporting cast, made all the more difficult by the offloading of Shaun Johnson last year.

The Titans went belly up in the recruitment department the moment they threw seven figures at Jarryd Hayne in 2016. Only now have they begun to recover although they may be repeating the mistakes of the past by throwing another seven figure contract around, this time to David Fifita.

Canterbury were really shafted by Des Hasler’s attempts to buy a Premiership. Those recruitment decisions crippled the club and its inability to recruit both an effective half to support Kieran Foran and a hooker has meant they have been solely relying on the injury plagued playmaker. They have though begun to turn it around by attracting Canberra’s Nick Cotric.

The Dragons though are a curious case. While spending a bucket load of money on Ben Hunt, they have also had a high quality forward pack to support him. Tyson Frizell, Paul Vaughan and at one stage Jack De Belin all featured in the side. Add in James Graham and they had one of the best forward packs in the competition. However, nothing much has come from them throughout Paul McGregor’s tenure.

Graham has since departed for St Helens, Frizell will be heading to Newcastle next season while the Dragons are still paying an exorbitant amount of their cap on Jack De Belin to sit on the sidelines while he faces sexual assault charges.

With player values continuing to climb but game revenues down due to the pandemic, will these contracts remain sustainable, or will the reset button be hit in the not too distant future?

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