NRL playing catch up footy on TV rights

And so Stage 136,876,942 of the great AFL vs NRL pissing contest is underway.

The NRL yesterday announced their TV/media/broadcasting deal and according to NRL types it is bigger and better than the AFL effort. Of course those living in civilisation are of a contrasting view.

There’s enough toing and froing about the various details available in the press and on the forums that I don’t need to go into them. My only view is that the Daily Telegraph does seem to be stretching a bit here to stand up its claim that the NRL is now the most valuable footy code in the land.

It may be, but that evidence is hardly decisive. I’d say that at the moment, things are too close to call.

What we can say with clear certainty though is that the AFL that is making the running. The NRL was desperate to match the AFL deal. It knew it was never going to blow the indigenous code out of the water, never going to get a deal worth 50 per cent, or even 20 per cent more. Instead, merely matching, or being able to spin the deal as a match, was the aim.

That’s called playing catch up footy and as everyone knows, the team caught behind a strong opponent like that more often than not loses.

And make no mistake, the NRL is coming from a long way back. One of the key boasts about the new deal is that it will allow the NRL to fund grassroots programs and fight back against AFL penetration into the Gold Coast and Western Sydney markets.

Problem is the AFL is waaaaay ahead on grassroots promotion of the game. Auskick is already hugely popular. And Gold Coast and GWS have done the hard yards of getting set up. They might not be much chop on-field now, but every game that Harley Bennell and Toby Greene play is one closer to them becoming the true superstars in winning teams they inevitably will be.

A key measure of how far behind NRL finds itself is the two names Karmichael Hunt and Israel Folau. Does anyone in their right mind think that two players of their stature in the AFL could be lured to go and play rugby league? The idea is preposterous. In fact, the NRL deal won’t even guarantee expansion into a footy market like Perth, let alone the prospect of getting a hometown gun like Buddy Franklin over to the side to promote it.

The AFL is streets ahead in other ways too. Possibly the most important statement Andrew Demetriou has made came in an interview with The Conversation last year:

“We are already planning for our next broadcast rights in five years and we’ve only just finished the last one. That is how sophisticated it has become. Where are the next revenue streams coming from and what is the next big ticket item?

We have just set up our own media company. We’ve set up our own production company. We’ve got our own publishing arm and that is all about preparation for the next broadcast rights because we may decide with the advent of the NBN to sell direct to the consumer. We might control our content more. We might work across various platforms.

We are trying to control as much as we can control and not deal with as many third parties. That is where I see upside in the revenue.”

Apart from the fact that it demonstrates that the AFL is already years ahead of the NRL in simple planning for its revenue streams – the NRL only having just caught up to what the AFL secured – it throws into stark contrast just how advanced the AFL is in its strategic vision.

Demetriou is talking about vertically integrating the business in its entirety. They will own and control everything from the trademarks the teams operate under right down to the vision that fans watch. Every stage, AFL owned and controlled. Think of the opportunities there.

This isn’t the time and the place to get into the very real debate about whether the AFL providing the commentators on games is a good thing. What it does show is that the AFL is already well on its way to gaining a generational lead on NRL in terms of media distribution.

The Age this week reported that those “direct down the pipe” plans mooted by Demetriou last year are now the subject of negotiations with NBN Co. According a well placed BigFootyNews thourthe, those negotiations are further advanced that most suspect.

Word is NBN Co are keen to lock the AFL into a deal, a desire that is reciprocated, whereby the indigenous code becomes a kind of “foundation partner”. The mutual benefits are clear: NBN gets the blessing and imprimatur of a huge, well resourced organisation with national exposure and its own very powerful political clout. The AFL will no doubt get an “early bird” rate on using NBN infrastructure.

If the AFL can get this deal signed and sealed, it will ensure NRL is playing catch up for a long time to come.

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