Can NRL Shelter From The Storm?

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newmatilda.com doesn’t run a lot of stories on sport and the last time a story on league appeared on the site, it was an article I wrote in March about the Melbourne Storm. I was asking questions about the club’s long term viability in view of its precarious financial position, and News Ltd’s apparent enthusiasm to cease being its owner/operator. As I wrote then:

Far from turning a profit, it’s been consistently reported that they cost their owners around $6 million dollars a year to keep afloat (although this remains conjecture, as the finances of the club aren’t directly available to the public). That’s more than the amount of the player salary cap (currently at $4.4 million).

As of yesterday, the whole country knows that the figures at the Storm didn’t add up.

Melbourne’s systematic rorting of the salary cap has seen them stripped of their last two premierships, and means that they’re unable to accumulate any points this year. With no other club able — or willing — to assume the premierships they illegitimately won, the years 2007 and 2009 are now black holes in the history of the game.

Up until Round Six, which ended on 19 April, the Storm were the League’s most successful, star-studded outfit, even though they’d lost the last two rounds. From Round Seven — should the club even manage to survive — for seasons to come, they will be pariahs.

A penalty of this scale is unprecedented in Australian sport, but it’s hard to say that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

David Gallop — a man whose picture should be inserted into the Macquarie Dictionary’s entry for "long-suffering" — has correctly adjudged that cheats should not only not prosper, but that their achievements should be excised from the history of the game. The one positive to emerge from this sordid affair is the swift and fearless response from the NRL, who acted so despite the fact that the League’s part owners are also the proprietors of the Storm.

The tawdry details about how the cap was rorted which are now emerging are not only painful for anyone who loves the game, they also suggest that this episode will end in the criminal courts. This morning’s Sydney papers carried reports of second sets of bookkeeping, of collusive suppliers overcharging the club and handing surpluses back to players, and of the Storm riding roughshod over the rules on third-party employment. On this last point, Cameron Smith’s employment at Fox Sports has been offered as an example of the club negotiating a prohibited third-party deal. There have also been suggestions that envelopes full of cash were handed to marquee players at the club in order that they be kept sweet.

There are many victims here.

Firstly, there are the fans of the club, whose pride in their team’s success has been replaced by shame and anger about an unforgivable level of corruption. They were the ones whose dedication to a League team in unfriendly territory was the faint sign recently that the Storm was making inroads.

And to those players who did not receive off-the-book payments, and who nevertheless worked for the team’s successes, a fair degree of sympathy should be accorded.

For League fans in general, this is yet another incident that means we will need to defend their sport in bars and at barbecues — just at a time when it was looking like the season might be "clean".

For the NRL, the prospect of having a successful Melbourne club in the short to medium term has been seriously damaged. If a club survives in the long term, it may not be the Storm, whose brand has been tarnished beyond recognition — and maybe beyond redemption.

As I discussed in March, well before these revelations, the Storm were looking like an orphan side, with no one interested in taking the reins at an unprofitable franchise and News Ltd looking at getting out of propping them up.

Gallop has this morning indicated that the NRL is committed to having a club in the southern capital. But it’s hard not to wonder whether replacing the Storm with another club in League’s heartland areas might not be a better move. Another Queensland team — in Ipswich or Central Queensland — would be friendly in terms of scheduling and it would mean the burgeoning demographic north of the Tweed would have a team to barrack for Friday through Monday. The Central Coast of NSW also has a long-standing, legitimate claim that they should have a side.

There are ramifications to the salary cap rorting that extend well beyond rugby league. All those involved in Australian sport should see this as a wake-up call.

It’s been suggested that some players weren’t even aware of being overpaid, and that all of this was mediated by player managers. No one begrudges players with short careers getting the best deal they can from clubs and the League. It seems that in this and other instances, the transactions between clubs and managers — which took place over the heads of players and fans — is where the rot sets in. More transparency in making public the details of complex individual deals is something any code that restricts wages — such as the AFL — might want to consider as they watch League’s convulsions.

Also at stake is the relationship between sport and the media in this country. That is, the way in which the interests of clubs and sports are tied in with the interests of those who are supposed to be reporting on sport in the public interest.

The Storm were the ultimate symbol of News Ltd’s post-Super League influence on the game. They are an artefact of the war in which News Corporation started a parallel competition in its efforts to take over the game — the Storm are the last club standing who were created especially for Super League.

They are owned by News Ltd — who also own half of Fox Sports, half of the NRL, and the tabloid newspapers in Brisbane and Sydney that do most of the reporting on Rugby League. The Storm’s line-up has included in recent years half of the Queensland State of Origin backline, and a great many Kangaroos. Why weren’t journalists asking hard questions about how the club was able to pay for these players?

We can believe News Ltd CEO John Hartigan when he says that no one outside the club itself knew about the salary rorts — and still wonder whether cosy relationships like this are detrimental to the game. On the one hand, how effective are the Chinese walls between the parts of the organisation doing the reporting, and those being reported on? And on the other, if this much money was being outlaid for so long, what does that say about the managerial supervision of News Limited clubs, including the Broncos?

If the game really has sustained long term damage from this incident, these questions need to be asked persistently and urgently by fans and the non-News media. On this occasion, unfortunately, and despite what seems to be genuine shock on the part of people like Hartigan, News Ltd have made themselves the story.

If News really are pulling back from any ongoing involvement in the management of the NRL, the mess at the Storm might be their legacy. It should serve as a warning to Rugby League and other sports for the future: corporate control may not be more effective than community control in ensuring the game’s long-term survival. And it should not be soon forgotten that the ranks of professional sports administrators also include the likes of those who were running the league’s Melbourne outpost.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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