Rugby the loser in Murdoch-Packer battle


By Liam Mitchell

The debate in the mass media around Rupert Murdoch's proposed new rugby Super League has been found wanting. The discussion is centred on a choice between a worldwide pay-TV-oriented corporate competition and the status quo — an Australia-New Zealand corporatised competition run by the Australian Rugby League board (ARL).

When the Super League proposal was first announced earlier this year, it was to be a part of the global pay TV network. With the second proposal, nothing has changed except that the Murdoch camp is now better prepared and has made ground in securing deals with the British, French and New Zealand rugby league boards as well as a large number of individual players, coaches and some clubs in Australia. Although having to remain free to air in Australia, Super League will form part of Star TV's programming on a worldwide scale.

The current Murdoch proposal is for England-France and Australia-New Zealand Super Leagues with international play-offs and "domestic" state of origin-style competitions. England has already decided to switch its playing season to the northern summer to coincide with play in the southern hemisphere.

In studying the effects of this corporate raid into sport, it is necessary first to look at where this corporate influence on the game stems from and the direction the game was taking prior to the Super League.

Before News Ltd's proposal, the game was already in turmoil. The ARL's expansion from 16 to 20 clubs for this season only heightened existing contradictions. Clubs are already corporatised, with the future of some clubs being threatened by lack of corporate funding or fundraising.

The salary cap system (which limits the amount clubs can spend on players) is under fire although there are no better alternatives being put forward to ensure that richer clubs can't buy premierships. Clubs have been forced to shed some younger players, who have developed their skills in the clubs' lower grades, in order to retain higher paid players.

Rugby league is moving away from locally based clubs to clubs with some organic ties to their region, but with a considerable number of imported players. Corporatisation is divorcing clubs from their regions.

The '95 season expansion, without bringing enough new talent into the game, has spread the skill level rather thinly. While it's natural that new clubs would take a few years to achieve top competitive level, the uneven nature of the competition this season has been used as a justification for Super League.

The Brisbane Broncos are a classic example of club corporatisation. The Broncos are not run as a sporting club, but as a capitalist corporation. Skills and entertainment are "product", watching the game "purchasing the product" and players "commodities". Players' contracts are now ironclad during their term, even when a player's skill level increases dramatically, and the use of the courts to resolve disputes is common.

Larger city-based clubs outside Sydney, such as Brisbane and Canberra, utilise the fact that they are one-team cities to bring capital into the club through direct or indirect sponsorship. This helps these clubs to field a stronger team and retain their best players. Many teams in the Sydney region, on the other hand, do not have these resources; some have faced a drain of skilled players as players follow the money.

Through corporate deals, and making use of the lower cost of living in Brisbane compared to Sydney, the Broncos have been able to retain a team of highly skilled players while staying under the salary cap.

What has emerged is a fairly lopsided competition, in which teams with money dominate.

Would the ARL perhaps have better spent its time and money in fixing up the game as it existed, before expanding? The expansion has certainly exacerbated the player drain, and the skill level is thinner and less even than last season, with some of the newer clubs having no real chance in the competition.

Why did the ARL decide to expand? In whose interests are decisions being made, and who is really in control?

While it is impossible to call the ARL a capitalist corporation, it's heading that way given the sway of Kerry Packer, who holds TV licenses for the game. It was Packer who originally put the lid on the Super League. Packer's son, James Packer, is also one of the chief ARL negotiators in signing players.

The argument over the Super League has highlighted the problems with the ARL's organisation of the competition: players not receiving enough money; huge sums of money being splashed around (by James Packer) to retain players wooed by Murdoch (making a mockery of the salary cap rules); and the amount of control that corporate interests have over what is supposed to be recreation and entertainment. One can certainly say that the status quo shouldn't be maintained.

Players who have signed with the Super League can't be blamed for taking up the offer of more money. And it doesn't help to take sides between one media baron's interests and another's. How the game should be run is the key issue.

The Super League proposal means taking the most highly skilled, experienced and trained players and placing them in a competition out of reach of the vast majority of those people who play the sport, from junior ranks to local competition. Super League will create a barrier between an elite and those who are trying to achieve that level.

An elite level of competition is a good idea in principle — it's certainly great entertainment. Murdoch's proposal, however, creates an obstacle to the advancement of junior levels. A better way for the sport to be run is to have national (and/or elite) competition maintain its organic connections with grassroots competition.

This doesn't preclude international competition. Rugby union's Super Ten series and Five Nations Championships provide excellent examples of how such a competition could be run. Dividing the competition between corporate interests, however, inhibits the future of the sport.

Of course, the ARL and its NSWRL and QRL counterparts are not above criticism, and there are many areas for improvement. The first of these would be to move away from the corporatisation of the game at club level and ensure that funding (direct and indirect) is shared between clubs. The ARL is a better vehicle to do this.

This debate contains lessons for those interested in sports other than rugby league. It was perhaps inevitable the Super League proposal would come up, given the corporatisation of the sport at national level. Murdoch's Super League merely extends this corporatisation into the international arena.
[Liam Mitchell is an avid armchair football watcher.]