THE New Zealand broadcast rights are set to be the last piece of a $1.2 billion financial puzzle left to be solved when new NRL chief executive Dave Smith starts work next week, with most players understood to have voted for a new collective bargaining agreement.
Since Smith's appointment in November, the ARL Commission has followed up on the record $1.025 billion free-to-air and pay TV rights agreement with Channel Nine and Fox Sports by negotiating long-term online, radio and naming rights deals, and a five-year agreement with players.
The five-year sponsorship and online rights agreements with Telstra, which are believed to be worth more than $150 million, were announced on December 12, while details of the radio rights deal with 2GB and Triple M are still being finalised. The bargaining agreement, which will mean the salary cap increases to $5.8 million this season, is also yet to be signed by the NRL and Rugby League Players' Association but it is understood most players have endorsed it.
While the RLPA was still waiting earlier this week for players from five clubs, including the Warriors, to cast their votes, Fairfax Media was told that barring a dramatic turn there was already enough players in support to ensure the CBA was accepted.
However, the NRL may be forced to start the season without a new television deal in New Zealand as negotiations with Sky NZ drag on. Sky NZ chief executive John Fellet indicated he was confident of retaining the rights but Fairfax Media understands the NRL is considering a deal with a free-to-air broadcaster.
''As far as I know we are still negotiating and we have got the highest bid on the table,'' Fellet said. ''Last year we did the deal two days before the season. It is not uncommon for it to go four weeks into the season.''
It is understood Sky NZ paid $14 million to broadcast NRL matches and all Warriors under 20s games and officials believe the rights are worth more - given the Australian deal has doubled in value. In addition, the return of Kiwi star Sonny Bill Williams to the NRL this season is considered a major drawcard and it has been suggested that his presence increases the value of the New Zealand television rights by $1 million.
However, without another bidder in New Zealand the NRL has little leverage to gain an increased deal and Fairfax has been told an alternative being considered was to sell the rights to a free-to-air network. By doing so, the NRL may not secure any more money from television in New Zealand but the greater exposure would significantly benefit the game across the Tasman.
The NRL interim chief executive, Shane Mattiske, hoped all broadcast deals would be finalised by the start of the season, which kicks off with Williams's Roosters hosting South Sydney on March 7. ''We still have a strong focus on having our New Zealand television and new media arrangements resolved before the start of the season,'' Mattiske said. ''It and the finalisation of our radio contracts will complete the broadcast negotiations.''
Smith officially starts work next Friday, February 1, but he is understood to have been a regular visitor to Rugby League Central in recent weeks to familiarise himself with the issues in the game.