February 2021 Opinion

Why the NRL needs a supporters’ union

The fans need an organisation to represent their interests.

When the NRL announced a raft of rule changes at the end of the 2020 season for 2021, it did so with the justification that the changes had support from fans.

Anecdotally, I have seen very little support from a wide range of supporter groups. Whether it’s on individual supporter sites such as the Silvertails or One Eyed Eel, the r/NRL subreddit or throughout Twitter, the majority of comments have either been negative or displayed general apathy towards the changes.

Last month I detailed why the NRL is a danger to itself and set out a number of issues with the rule changes.

A major issue I have with the way Peter V’landys and the NRL in general has approached rule changes, is the flippant way they have gone about it and the very loose justifications used.

In December 2020, V’landys said the change to field goals being worth two points if kicked from more than 40 metres out was suggested by a fan

In that same article V’landys said he makes a number of decisions based on feedback from fans.

That in itself is not a problem. If an administrator ignores the fans they lose them quickly.

But the real problem is that the NRL has no single body representing the fans. It uses fan surveys and correspondence to gauge what the fans want.

That presents a few problems. Those surveys are done online and generally emailed to club members. Club members represent only a small percentage than the overall majority of fans.

It also excludes those who don’t utilise their email often which generally means those in older age groups.

If V’landys and the NRL are also acting off the suggestion of one fan with an idea, then it makes it difficult for people to understand how the NRL actually goes about rule changes.

From the outside looking in, it appears the rule changes were a collection of ideas spouted out during a meeting with a few discussed, approved and instituted with little outside consultation.

If the rules really were for the fans, then why weren’t the rules suggested and then put to a vote for the NRL to see if the rules were actually popular?

This brings me to the main point of the article.

The NRL lacks a single, independent voice for the fans. 

While other sports including the AFL and EPL have supporters’ unions at individual clubs, the NRL has nothing of the sort.

In a way, the fans aren’t getting their voice heard because they aren’t united.

In 2015 and 2016 a group of Parramatta Eels supporters attempted to set up their own group and they got as far as a draft constitution and several in-person meetings of over 100 people before the 2016 salary cap scandal hit the club and fans moved away from the idea.

I was one of those people involved in trying to establish the group and I still believe in the underlying principle of the group.

A supporters’ union gives a united voice to fans and prevents people like V’landys being able to just say “this is for the fans”, if the union doesn’t support a decision.

But this isn’t just about rule changes.

Supporters’ unions can play an important role in issues such as ticket prices and scheduling.

Without a united voice, fans can’t truly have their say. The NRL can hide behind fan surveys and emails as justifications for its decisions rather than having to deal with a serious fan body with financial, voting members that can present a solid viewpoint.

The fact Eels supporters managed to attract hundreds of interested participants in a matter of months five years ago indicates an interest in such a supporters group in meaningful numbers.

How do I see an NRL supporters’ union operating?

  • Each member would have to pay a minimum $20 per year membership fee handing them voting rights.
  • A board would be elected of seven people with a range of professional skills including finance, business, legal and communications.
  • The board would have triennial elections with a minimum of two members up for each election and maximum terms of 10 years.
  • No former board member or executive of the NRL or NRL club would be eligible for a board position within three years of exiting the NRL or NRL club.
  • Quarterly general meetings to be held to discuss issues within the game set down by a predetermined agenda, allowing for agenda items to be added by paying members.
  • Proxy voting and online voting to be permitted alongside all meetings being live-streamed online.

The basis of the union would be to provide a united front for supporters that can organise to oppose or support issues within the game, as well as act as a sounding board for the NRL.

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