RUGBY league?s independent commission is 100 days old and the honeymoon is over for its chairman John Grant. The Maserati-driving NRL supremo is speeding towards a collision with powerbrokers at the Sydney clubs over a number of issues.
Part of it is the perception that, after arriving with grand expectations that Grant would deliver real and lasting reform, he has been enjoying the trappings of his new post as much as tackling the hard issues.
“It’s early days yet, but we need more decisions, fewer trophy presentations and fewer trips to the UK and New Zealand,” said one prominent Sydney based club official.
The other area of concern for the financially strapped Sydney teams is the perceived favouritism towards the Broncos and the Titans from Grant’s home of Queensland.
The Sydney clubs and other members of the recently formed clubs association are preparing for an allout confrontation with the commission over the off-field power and supremacy of the Broncos.
A copy of Brisbane’s annual report has been circulated amongst the clubs showing the club’s turnover of a staggering $34 million and more than $28 million spent on the football team. It’s leading the push from the NRL club chairmen and the clubs’ association for expansion and a second team to be fast-tracked into Brisbane.
“The commission has got to do something about the Broncos monopoly,” said one of the more influential club chairmen. “We’re just not on a level playing field and they’re going to get stronger and stronger until they get some opposition.”
The Roosters make about $1.2 million in gate takings all season while the Broncos make that much in just two games.
Cronulla has a turnover of less than $13 million for the whole year – a third of what the Broncos get. The Broncos get the Friday night Channel Nine game almost every week and sell sponsorship on the back of having more free-to-air prime time exposure than any other club.
Grant’s ties to Queensland and his tight relationship with former Super League boss John Ribot has raised eyebrows, particularly on the day Ribot was a guest on Grant’s table at a recent function in Brisbane.
He also has a close association with Wayne Bennett from their days together at Brisbane Souths in the 70’s. When Bennett recently bagged the game as being too boring on the back page of this newspaper, Grant was straight on the phone to David Gallop to get referees to speed up the play-the-ball.
Grant has also gone out of his way to personally act on the Gold Coast Titans financial mess with fellow commissioner Gary Pemberton. At the same time, struggling Sydney clubs have been left to fight their own battle for survival.
There have been few tough calls made since the commission came into power. The scrapping of the McIntyre system for the finals was happening anyway. They have acted on the player eligibility fiasco in representative football by introducing new guidelines for when players first join the NRL. It will prevent any future Greg Inglis or James Tamou cases where they are clearly playing for the wrong teams.
The commission has also taken a strong stance on domestic violence by banning Cowboys halfback Robert Lui for 12 months and Cronulla’s Isaac Gordon for 10 weeks.
The television broadcasting deal is obviously the biggest topic in the game. Anything less than a $1.2 billion payday
will be considered a failure.
There are other pressing issues that the commission needs to act on, including the mid-season player transfers, not that it even appears to be on their radar. “The system that is there is transparent and enforceable – no one has a workable alternative,” said chief executive David Gallop.
The future of suburban home grounds and transferring blockbusters to big stadiums to create more revenue has been driven by the clubs and has had no input from the commission.
Gold Coast boss Michael Searle was the major architect of the commission and declared the game would save millions of dollars a year in administration costs. But as one official said: “Michael has hardly proved himself to be a financial guru.”
If anything, management costs have risen. Grant earns $150,000-a-year as the chairman and the other seven commissioners take home $75,000.
In the AFL, their commissioners are paid only $25,000, but most don’t even take the money.
And so much for the game coming under the one umbrella. Veteran officials Geoff Carr, Bob Millward, Bob Saunders and John Chalk are still at the NSW Rugby league.
They are still paying former ARL boss Colin Love’s legal firm for advice, despite the commission appointing a full-time in-house lawyer and still using the services of senior lawyer Tony O’Reilly for major cases.
If the commission thought they had a fight with the clubs over the Broncos domination, it is nothing compared to the tussle they are facing over the carve-up of the television money.
The clubs now get a $3.85 million grant and operate under a $4.4 million salary cap. The clubs association and the chairmen want a $7 million grant with a $6 million salary cap. The players association are getting in on the act too. They’ll be asking for as much as $75,000 match payments for State of Origin appearances and backing the clubs for the salary cap increase.
“Getting the money from the networks won’t be the problem,” said one official. “The difficulty will be the clubs fighting for their share of it.”