NRL faces major turmoil as clubs threaten breakaway league and strikes over funding battle
Phil Rothfield, Sports Editor-at-Large, The Daily Telegraph
November 12, 2016 9:00pm
RUGBY league is facing 12 months of unprecedented turmoil to rival the Super League days.
Extraordinary threats of a rebel breakaway group and possible State of Origin strike action from the players have emerged over the NRL’s refusal to finalise negotiations on club funding and player payments from the $1.8 billion broadcast deal that was done 12 months ago.
A heated recent meeting between club chairmen, chief executive Todd Greenberg and ARL Commission chairman John Grant over sharing the TV spoils broke down with the parties unable to agree on any of the 12 points on the agenda.
Grant and Greenberg then infuriated the clubs by leaving the country to watch the Four Nations tournament for three weeks in England and delay the process even more.
One official told the Sunday Telegraph the growing anger and frustration reminded him of the pre-Super League days of the 1990s when clubs went to war with the ARL over finances.
The 2017 season is the last year of the 16 clubs’ participation and licensing agreement with the NRL.
Many of the biggest names in rugby league including Johnathan Thurston, Jason Taumalolo, Mitchell Pearce and Darius Boyd are among more than 250 players off contract in the next 12 months who have been left in limbo with no idea of the salary cap beyond next season.
Player payments aside, there is also outrage over a secret NRL plan to force clubs to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars from their annual grant to bail out struggling rivals.
Instead of handing out money to teams that fall on hard times like the Titans, Knights, St George Illawarra and the Wests Tigers in recent years, the NRL is saying it is now the responsibility of the clubs to save themselves.
The plan is for each club to contribute up to $300,000 annually to an emergency account, money which could then be used for loans in special circumstances to ensure the survival of all teams.
One senior official told The Sunday Telegraph the plan had been rejected out of hand.
Even the game’s best player’s future is under a cloud. Picture: Adam Head
“It’s the NRL’s job to run the competition, we’re just shareholders,” he said.
“We’re hitting obstructions in every area of negotiations.
“This new fund idea is ridiculous. Why should clubs that run their business well be responsible for those that don’t.”
The new broadcast deal of $1.8 billion is a 70 per cent increase on the previous television contract with the funding kicking in at the beginning of the 2018 season.
The clubs have been given a guarantee they will get 130 per cent of the salary cap as their annual grant.
So if the salary cap goes to $8.5 million (it’s now $7 million) the club grants will be slightly more than $11 million, leaving the NRL to hand out $192 million to the clubs each year.
This should be achievable given the $1.8 billion TV money averages out at $360 million a season.
“But what happens with the rest of the money?” asked one official.
The NRL’s biggest problem is the players will be aiming for a salary cap of closer to $10 million in their still-to-be-negotiated collective bargaining agreement.
And the more the players get, the more the NRL is forced to give the clubs because of the 130 per cent funding agreement reached prior to Christmas last year.
Underlining the mess, the Cowboys have suspended talks with their co-captains, Thurston and Matt Scott, until the NRL announces a salary cap figure.
The Roosters want to sign Pearce to a life contract but can’t.
One long-serving chief executive said it was the most uncertain contractual terrain in the NRL’s 19-year history.
The players’ association has hired former Channel Nine boss David Gyngell but even he is running into brick walls.
Leading player manager Steve Gillis slammed the NRL’s treatment of the code’s elite players.
“The players are the stars of the game,” he said. “They deserve better communication and information.
“There is the possibility of an enormous backlash from players unless we get some answers.
“All we want is the NRL to give us some clarity. You can’t say it might be May or June or October. Tell us when the salary cap will be sorted. Why is it secret service? This is their livelihoods.”
Asked about the possibility of strike action, one official said: “Of course the players don’t want to do it but State of Origin has been mentioned because that what would hurt the NRL the most.”
And asked how many of the 16 clubs would support threats of a breakaway group, a chairman said: “There is plenty of solidarity — in fact more than ever before and it’s not just the usual suspects. It’s from Melbourne to Townsville.
“It’s the last thing anyone wants to do but even the NRL-aligned clubs have had enough of all the uncertainty.”