Rugby Australia is racing to set up a domestic Super Rugby competition that will not only see a resumption of play, but help to generate much-needed income to prevent a mass exodus of players overseas. The trio of Queensland Reds players – Izack Rodda, Isaac Lucas and Harry Hockings – who terminated their contracts after refusing to take pay cuts last week is a trickle that could become a flood if RA fails to negotiate a broadcast deal to fund a domestic competition and beyond.
While those players seem to have cut their ties with Australian rugby, the rest of the 190 or so professional players will be anxiously waiting to see the outcome of broadcast negotiations, which will largely determine the value of future player payments.
The three players were condemned as selfish by several former Wallabies who played in the amateur era – for love, not money – but the game changed irrevocably when it went professional in 1995. Their decision was disappointing, but it was understandable. Rugby is their livelihood and their career spans are limited.
They may have been the first to break ranks, but they may not be the last. Unless RA can negotiate a lucrative broadcast deal, how will Australian administrators keep the rest of the players down on the farm?
The players have accepted hefty pay cuts for this year, which were negotiated by RA and the Rugby Union Players Association, but they will not accept low pay indefinitely, particularly if there are lucrative options overseas. That’s why the TV deal is so important, but there is a catch. In order to generate income you need a broadcast agreement and in order to strike a TV deal you need to provide content. At the moment RA has neither.
The organisation has set a date of the weekend of 3 and 4 July for a resumption of play following the easing of restrictions imposed to combat the coronavirus pandemic. That’s just six weeks away. The preferred competition model involved the four Australian Super Rugby franchises plus the Western Force and the Japanese Sunwolves, but the closure of international and state borders makes this problematic.
It is already accepted that the Sunwolves will not be involved in any Australian competition this year, while there is uncertainty about the Force’s participation. The Force were axed from Super Rugby in 2017. Who would pay for them to take part in a new competition? RA? The team’s benefactor Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest?
Even if the Force were invited back into the fold, Western Australia’s border remains closed, as is Queensland’s. Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has indicated the Sunshine State will not open its border until late September, while Western Australia premier Mark McGowan says opening the western border will be one of the last restrictions eased.
In this scenario, the Reds and the Force would need to relocate and RA would have to create a mini-hub in NSW to accommodate the two teams. But without a lucrative broadcast deal would this be affordable?
Even if RA managed to organise a domestic competition, what value would it be to a broadcaster such as Fox Sports, which seems to be the only player in the game? Significantly, there is not just one broadcast agreement to be negotiated, but two. The first will aim to get Australian rugby through the remainder of this year, while the second will determine its future for the foreseeable future from 2021 to 2025.
The current $57m a year broadcast deal with Fox Sports looks like a river of gold that is about to dry up. There is speculation Fox will only pay $10m to $18m a year or even put rugby on a performance-based deal, and these rumours are making players nervous. The fear is that Australian rugby will become a semi-professional sport with the Wallabies the only marketable product remaining. In that event, players could not be blamed for wanting to leave.
RA has let go consultants Shane Mattiske and Michael Tange with chairman-elect Hamish McLennan to drive the broadcast negotiations as a “matter of urgency”. That could be an understatement. Fox Sports – or whoever RA negotiates with – may believe they hold all the cards, but RA does have one card up its sleeve – the gold Wallabies card. That needs to be leveraged for all it is worth and then some.
With the exception of the Reds trio, the players have kept their heads down so far, but they will follow the broadcast negotiations closely, keeping their options open. There will come a time around the end of September or the beginning of October when the players will demand certainty about the financial future of the game here or look elsewhere.
If RA is unable to deliver a sustainable broadcast deal, more and more players will leave, not just a few Queenslanders, placing enormous pressure on the shape and structure of Australian rugby. The clock is ticking.