If there is something that deserved more attention but was quickly covered over thanks to COVID and the many on/off field controversies, it has been the gradual shrinking and cutting of NRL Digital.
The NRL stood up its own media outlet at the end of 2017 combining in-house journalists and external journalists with current and former players and coaches.
It’s seen NRL.com transform into its own news service alongside regular web shows.
And according to NRL chief digital officer Alex Alderson, its weekly audience grew by one million during 2020 and 2021, jumping from 3.5 million to 4.5 million people.
Well, thanks to the whingeing of Fox Sports and Channel Nine, some of the web shows will be booted off NRL.com simply because the broadcasters see them as competing with their own content.
Never mind that NRL shows such as The Game Plan or Inside the NRL don’t run parallel to any of Nine or Fox’s flagship shows. They both run during the week at 4pm.
Fox’s most watched rugby league show outside live games – NRL 360, airs at 6.30pm, while Nine’s pathetic 100% Footy runs in the dead spot of 10.45pm and its Sunday Footy Show runs from 11am to 1pm on a Sunday.
But why do the NRL’s broadcast partners see these shows as competitors?
Ever since the outbreak of COVID in 2020, Nine and Fox have been gunning for the digital arm of the NRL. They’ve labelled it as a monetary drain on the game but its finances tell a different story.
A 2019 audit stated NRL Digital could double in value in the next two years to just under $1 billion.
Now, it’s become pretty clear why Nine dislikes NRL Digital.
It wants full digital rights to rugby league in Australia like it does with the tennis.
And unfortunately, Peter V’landys has now backflipped on his March 2020 position of,
“We are focused on improving and expanding the digital services that we provide – enabling and supporting the game and the businesses of the game’s partners. Our digital network can help us grow our fan base, improve our engagement with fans and ensure our game is sustainable and growing.”
NRL Digital suffered heavy cuts last year under the guise of COVID cuts. Again, that was despite it being very clearly a financial success.
Now it’s preparing for further cuts as Fox and Nine turn up the heat leading into a new round of TV rights negotiations.
But all of this is occurring to the detriment of fans and their overall experience of rugby league.
As briefly mentioned above, Channel Nine’s coverage of the game outside actual match broadcasts, is pathetic.
It has just two shows dedicated to rugby league.
100% Footy is the Wish version of NRL 360 and the fact it runs so late on a Monday night is indicative of the fact Nine has never really backed it.
Meanwhile at Fox, it has continued cashing in on its outrage cycle driven by NRL 360, combined with the general buffoonery of Matty Johns and co.
Entertaining stuff, probably. Actually adding to the game? Unlikely. How many more times is Matty going to roll out his European karaoke story?
Nine has tried to make up the gap with its Freddy and the Eighth digital series alongside Sterlo’s Wrap which are both digital shows.
But they’re hardly attracting massive numbers of views and with Peter Sterling retiring I shudder to think what they’ll be replacing it with.
Maybe it will be Andrew Johns just yelling about the game not being played in slow motion at the same time he’s criticising a late hit on a halfback that only looks late because it’s being played in slow motion.
Maybe it will be Gus in a bathrobe, seated in a recliner, smoking a pipe and reading from Gus’ rulebook as he works himself into a lather over the referees getting a call correct because “that’s not what the game is about”.
What I am saying is, Fox and Nine have much more money to put into very good rugby league content than the NRL does and yet they persist with the likes of Phil Rothfield and Paul Kent yelling at each other.
What is stopping Nine from rolling out a 30 minute show using Andrew Johns to explain the ins and outs of halves play? If you ever actually get to hear Joey talking about the intricacies of halves play, it’s very informative, but in the heat of a live call he’s becoming more and more like a young Gus Gould, yelling about things no one cares about.
What about Fox?
They have Cooper Cronk and Matty Johns. For all of Johns’ attempts at humour, he knows his stuff. Just ask Cooper, Matty was his halves coach.
Give them 30 minutes a week to talk through plays and defensive systems instead of a bloody recorded podcast about off-season shenanigans and drinking binges.
Funnily enough, Fox did just that last week and it was both informative and well-received.
As much as I have attacked the NRL and the V’landys administration over its running of the game in the past two years, NRL Digital was one of the few good things to be happening and now it’s being gutted.
If there is one thing that could be run worse than the NRL, it’s the NRL media.
Both Fox and Nine are in danger of seeing their commentary teams end up well down the path of Nine’s cricket commentary at the end of their run.
It is quickly becoming a box filled with more and more ex-players who played with and against each other and with that comes plenty of in-jokes, leaving the viewers out in the cold.
The retirement of Peter Sterling from Nine should trigger a revamp in the way Nine covers games, lest Sterlo’s retirement act as the kind of warning bells that the late Tony Greig’s passing did at Nine.
With Greig gone, followed by Richie Benaud and Bill Lawry withdrawing, the void was filled with stars from the 80s, 90s and 2000s, quickly descending into tales of:
“Remember when we did this?”, “Remember this tour?”, “Ha Ha, Warnie only eats baked beans and Hawaiian pizza.”
It was a blokes club on national television.
As the great Benaud would say, “If you can add to what’s on the screen, then do it, otherwise, shut up.”
Good play-by-play callers are hard to find and right now rugby league seems to be running low.
Ray Warren is on his last legs and has signalled 2022 will likely be his final season. He’s a legend of the game, but he’s not the caller he once was.
Andrew Voss has become a caricature of himself, seemingly now playing the character of “Vossy”. I don’t doubt his enthusiasm for the game, but far too often he gets caught up with the smallest of refereeing errors or poor pieces of play and it’s all he talks about for five minutes.
Speaking of controversy. Far too much of it is spun out of commentary.
Take Thursday night’s clash from a few weeks ago between the Roosters and Raiders for example. What did Channel Nine focus on at half time? A correct call by the touch judges to declare that Adam Keighran’s sideline conversion was successful.
Something that was confirmed by a camera positioned behind the goal posts, was fixated on for no reason.
While we’re on commentators, it’s a sad indictment for the sport that there are no female play-by-play callers in rugby league. There are anchors, occasional colour commentators, but where is rugby league’s Isa Guha or Caroline Wilson?
Who has been calling the NRLW, or women’s State of Origin?
Fox isn’t any better as it continues to roll with the likes of Braith Anasta and Steve Roach. Anasta butchers idioms and can hardly tell you what’s happening, while Roach adds very little in the way of insight, but at least he’s coming through with some energy and passion.
Going back to controversy and few sports do it like the NRL.
I see the cause of this being two things:
- It’s seen as a ratings driver. We had six days of coverage following Latrell Mitchell’s hit on Joseph Manu. The only person not asked for comment was the kit manager.
- There’s no one at either Fox or Nine in a commentary position who has refereed the game. None, zip, zilch, nada. Not one of those commentators has been the man in the middle.
How can you have a commentary team that’s meant to be educating the viewers and explaining the intricacies of the game if they don’t know the rules?
Case in point, the downtown penalty during the clash between the Panthers and Rabbitohs.
It took former NRL referee Luke Phillips all of 5 minutes to explain the rule on Twitter.
Or the Will Penisini penalty try in the Eels vs Knights elimination final. No one in the Channel Nine commentary box actually knew the drop kick rule.
You look at other sports like the EPL and NFL, and sure, they have plenty of controversy, but do you know what else they have on their commentary teams? A former official whose job it is to explain the rules.
On Optus Sport, covering the EPL is former referee Dermot Gallagher who the commentators throw to when needed to explain a rule or interpretation. That usually quashes most disagreements.
On NFL coverage you have former officials Mike Pereira and Gene Steratore. In a game as complicated as American football is, they help to provide clarity on some of the more technical rules.
Nine’s TV ratings have reportedly been falling off a cliff in the past two seasons, while many choose Fox as the lesser of two evils.
Sure, you may score Braith Anasta on commentary, but you have no ads during play.
But there remains a large subset of fans who simply tune into games and that’s it. They’re not engaging with the sport outside of matches and that becomes a problem over time.
Nine and Fox have no one to blame but themselves on this front. They certainly don’t have NRL Digital to blame.
Fox’s Tales from Tiger Town showed what happens when you invest in a high quality product.
It’s time for less outrage cycle, pundits yelling over each other and commentators creating controversy, and more informed commentary, interesting documentaries and insightful analysis.