Fast and furious, a league apart
On Thursday I received a text from a lawyer friend: ''Number of NRL players to be banned for match-fixing. Player agent also involved. Action is being delayed. Is News Ltd making sure story doesn't break yet so it doesn't suck oxygen from grand final?''
News Ltd would regard this as an outrageous question. But the question was raised because News Ltd has a lot of influence with the National Rugby League, and has displayed little interest in this story.
In 17 pages of coverage of the 2010 rugby league grand final in its two Sydney-based newspapers on Saturday, News did not have the story that the Herald splashed on its front page at the weekend, about a betting plunge involving the alleged manipulation of an NRL game.
The NRL and the NSW police have amassed a mountain of detail about a betting plunge on an NRL match on August 21 involving the accident-prone Canterbury Bulldogs and the North Queensland Cowboys. The Herald named several people, including an NRL player and a former player, who had come to the attention of the investigation.
This strikes at the core of the game's integrity. It is also a big story - unless you work at News Ltd, the same company that owns last year's premiers, the Melbourne Storm, who were exposed as having engaged in systematic cheating. Not that News Ltd management knew anything about this. News merely owns the team.
This is another example of the bipolar nature of rugby league. On one side, the product it puts on the field and on TV screens is brilliant. The game has evolved into the most exciting and telegenic of the four major football codes in Australia. It is a 21st-century spectacle. It needed to be.
The favourite game among young males, by far, is video games. They are fast, furious, interactive and usually brutal. These games have changed the attention spans of young people, and football needs to adapt to the tempo of the video age. The NRL has adapted, becoming more manic, and is now the most-watched sport on Australian TV.
Then there is the other face of the NRL; the endless parade of thuggish incidents on and off the field, and alcohol-fuelled stupidity by NRL players. Four players in yesterday's grand final made headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2009.
Australia is unique among major sporting markets in having four football codes competing for market share. The irony is that the two international games, football (soccer) and rugby union, are getting trounced by the two parochial codes, rugby league and Australian Rules, which are both fast and furious, and both built on deep tribal roots.
Rugby union, in the context of the video age (as distinct from its own rich tradition), is a rubbish product. It is a 19th century game in a 21st century marketplace.
The Australian Rugby Union has also cooked the golden goose. Whoever decided it was a good idea to flog the national team, the Wallabies, by playing four Tests a year against the All Blacks and another three Tests a year against the Springboks needs to go. The mystique of these once iconic rivalries has been eroded by over-exposure.
Saturday was the big day for the rugby's Sydney competition, the prime nursery of elite rugby, but the season ended with a poor crowd - 5400 - at a grim and largely empty venue, Concord Oval, on a wet day, as Sydney University won its sixth consecutive premiership with a 46-6 thumping of Randwick.
Typically, the game was marred by 23 penalties and 38 turnovers.
Rugby is a game about punishment. It is excessively complex and ambiguous. The soaring fluidity and sweeping movements that the game can produce are buried beneath a pedantic structure that crushes continuity and public interest. The crowd figures and TV ratings do not lie.
What stands between rugby and permanent irrelevance is the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. Australia has a good coach, a good draw, and a good team that can beat anyone on its day, so it is not far-fetched to regard the 2011 World Cup as winnable. But a poor World Cup will exacerbate the game's decline.
At least rugby is not facing the possibility that its entire top tier will collapse. That is ominously possible for the A league, the showcase of football, or soccer, in this country.
I am a keen follower of football, but while I watch the English Premier League on TV, I would not cross the road to watch an A league game. Most people agree with me. The crowd figures and TV ratings say so.
Therein lies the challenge for football in Australia. Our best young players, like most of the fans, have their eyes on the glittering big leagues on Europe. The A League also suffers by being built from a business plan, not the organic, incremental growth of the tribal loyalties on which the AFL and NRL juggernauts are built.
Even the biggest tribes and biggest brands in global football are floating on a sea of red ink. The 20 English Premier League clubs have a combined debt of $4.6 billion. It's the same in Spain and Italy. The business model of Europe is debt and dynasty, with a handful of mega-clubs sharing the championships while the rest of the clubs make up the numbers.
Australia has chosen the American model (ironically, the socialist model) of salary caps and player drafts. The NRL and AFL can each expect billion-dollar contracts when their TV deals come for renewal.
Rugby union and the A League, unless they adapt to the era of attention deficit disorder, can expect the leftovers.
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