7 March 2023

Money, money, money ... and sport: has the NRL forgotten the hard-learned lessons of Super League?

| Tim Gavel
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The impact of Super League was huge for the Raiders club and fans. Photo: Jennifer Andrew.

If nothing else, the Super League war highlighted how easy it was to turn fans away from professional sport.

The Raiders were flying high after winning the 1994 premiership, yet three years later, having defected to Super League, they were struggling to get a crowd at Bruce Stadium.

Support dropped so low that free tickets were liberally given away to Raiders home games.

It wasn’t just the division in the code and the separate competitions that turned fans away; they were turned off by the perception of greed, with players talking about money rather than a love for the game.

The players had a point, though. Television networks covering games were making millions. Despite this, the focus was on the players going wherever the money was. It became a bidding war for players.

There were weeks during the 1997 season when there was hardly any talk of on-field action.

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The media focus, having hooked onto the evolution that was taking place, was clearly not on player and team tactics and performance.

At one stage it was suggested that business journalists should have been covering the Raiders rather than the sports jocks.

Players were talking about money and real estate, and instead of battered old utes, European cars filled the club’s car park.

The contrast could not have been more significant.

Fans were seemingly cast adrift in the argument, and it took a generation before supporters again filled Canberra Stadium.

I didn’t begrudge the players securing a greater piece of the financial pie, but there was a sense that rugby league was no longer a working-class game. It had become a business.

Time passed before the focus returned to the game itself and some fans, to this day, haven’t returned after being spurned by the Super League war.

Raiders supporters on mass at ANZ Stadium. Photo: Tim Gavel.

The sea of green supporters at the 2019 NRL Grand Final at ANZ Stadium. Photo: Tim Gavel.

This is why the public nature of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and the NRL was so surprising.

You would have thought the lessons of the past would not be so quickly forgotten. But apparently, they have been.

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With many fans battling to make mortgage repayments as interest rates continue to rise, the timing of the players’ demands for a significant increase, albeit on the back of an increase in broadcast revenue, missed the mark.

I acknowledge that part of the negotiations looked at payments to NRLW players, but this was lost in the narrative.

Thankfully, it would appear a resolution is close at hand, defusing what could have become a potential division between players and fans.

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