September 2021

When will we see NRL players sit out?

Will players sitting out games and training be the next evolution in the game of NRL player contract negotiations?

The National Rugby League may be a billion dollar game, but it’s a game that very much likes to keep hold of its traditions and fight against change whenever that change pops up.

The NRL has now spent two seasons approving ad hoc player loans and short term purchases, but is still yet to commit to a proper loan system.

However, it seems the game will inevitably permit loans as more and more clubs see the benefit in either sending a player to get game time, or bringing in a player to desperately fill a position.

But looking around the sporting world, perhaps the next change will occur when it comes to players trying to force moves to new clubs.

In the NRL, if a player wants out, they generally just agitate for a move and, after some stories are dropped in the media, perhaps a little bad blood between player and coach, a release is granted and everyone moves on.

There have been arguments from some corners saying players shouldn’t be allowed to move clubs mid-contract for more money.

I see that as an untenable position for the game to argue. Players aren’t going to agree to that, and that is almost certainly a restraint of trade.

We all accept the salary cap as a necessary evil, lest clubs go bust trying to buy a premiership winning team, or we end up with the lopsided hell that is the English Premier League where barely 20 percent of the competition is competing for the title.

Yes, the NRL competition is lopsided at the moment, but sides rise and fall with the times. In 2019 the Panthers finished 10th, in 2020 they finished second.

And the finals obviously throw up some interesting matchups with the occasional upset.

But telling players they can’t make more money if they go through a good vein of form and the market says they’re worth more?

That’s a no from me.

However, the next battleground I see operating as player salaries continue to rise, is sitting out.

In the NFL, NBA, MLB and EPL to name a few, it is fairly common for a player to sit out training and matches as they try to get a release from their club.

The move has two main goals.

  1. Lower the player’s transfer fee or on-market value which makes their buy-out more attractive to pursuing clubs.
  2. Force the club to move a player on who is a distraction.

At the time of writing, Tottenham Hotspurs captain and striker Harry Kane is sitting out training and matches as he agitates for a move to Manchester City.

Sitting out is a pretty regular occurrence in US sports and is being seen more and more in football.

One of the key contributors to this is purely the amount of money those players make.

Players that are sitting out are generally forfeiting their pay. But what’s a couple of hundred thousand dollars when you’re on millions and are trying to move to a club wanting to pay you more?

It’s different in Australian sport when only the best crack one million dollars.

And often the players looking to break their contract and go elsewhere are on a mid-level contract trying to get an increase.

They can’t sit out for as long.

The clubs can play the waiting game and wait for the player to fall back in line and, if anything, the move can be seen to lower the player’s value in Australia as it’s not seen as a “professional” or “Australian” thing to do.

But as player wages continue to rise, it probably won’t be too long before we perhaps see players towards the top of the pay scale look at sitting out to force a move.

When it does eventually happen, there will no doubt be a mix of reactions, some saying it shouldn’t be happening, others supporting the move.

It’s important that the NRL sees this as an eventual development in the game and prepares accordingly. 

The last thing the game needs is the NRL trying to make rules up on the fly.

Instead, we’d need ground rules set up and ready to go such as salary cap implications for clubs if players aren’t playing and perhaps even the introduction of transfer fees.

If the game does want to avoid players sitting out then, transfer fees may be the way to do it. If they’re included in the purchasing club’s salary cap alongside the player’s salary, then the move may not be economically possible.

These are all hypothetical situations.

Do you think we’ll eventually see sitting out in the NRL? Let me know in the comments.

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