Project Apollo splutters as Nine and Hugh Marks get out the whacking stick on NRL


Yet here ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys was about an hour later, talking exclusively to Nine News, confirming that a May 21 or May 28 restart was imminent.

The fact barely anyone on the very committee formed to investigate strategies to restart the competition knew about its own recommendations suggests they are merely puppets. It also suggests they were appointed with a return date and an outcome already determined.

Problem was, nobody got around to telling long-time broadcast partner Channel Nine, which pays the NRL $125 million a year to show its matches, about any of this.

Nine already had its nose firmly out of joint, angered that it hadn’t been given a seat at the Project Apollo table.

Sources at Nine — publisher of the Herald — say the media company has become increasingly angered about the way negotiations have played out since the NRL decided to suspend the competition on March 23 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Nine chief executive Hugh Marks has become increasingly hands-on with those discussions — and he hasn’t liked what he’s seen in the past two weeks.

When confidential details from one meeting with NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg and chief commercial officer Andrew Abdo were leaked to the press, it only added to the animosity.

Channel Nine chief executive Hugh Marks has taken control of broadcast negotiations with the NRL.Credit:Peter Braig

When the Herald broke the story on Wednesday night about the planned May 21 kick-off, it blindsided Nine. It was the final straw. So, at 11am on Thursday, Nine got out the whacking stick — and it whacked hard.

A statement released to Nine News and the Herald said the coronavirus pandemic “has highlighted the mismanagement of the code over many years” and revealed it had “bailed” out the game with a $50m loan in the past, but that “much of that has been squandered by a bloated head office completely ignoring the needs of the clubs, players and supporters”.

Around the same time, the innovation committee was meeting at League Central, discussing the game’s fabulous early return to the field …

Then everyone’s phones start lighting up with messages and phone calls.

Nine’s stunning broadside can be interpreted several ways. The immediate thought was that the company wants out of its broadcast deal, a line that’s been pushed by News Corp for weeks and, in some respects, understandably so after Nine announced to the Australian Stock Exchange it would save $130m if the NRL didn’t play another match this year.

Indeed, News Corp has done a solid job pushing a particular narrative throughout this crisis, highlighting that Nine didn’t make its quarterly broadcast payment on April 1 … while often neglecting to mention that Fox Sports also didn’t make its payment.

The play is understandable: Fox Sports and Kayo rely on subscriptions — and therefore content in the form of matches — to survive. Nine considers the game a “loss leader” — something that is great for its brand and news division despite the heavy costs involved with broadcasting matches.

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Many inside Nine’s Willoughby bunker are adamant the long-time broadcaster of rugby league doesn’t want to walk away from the game.

Relax, they say, we haven’t heard commentator Ray Warren screaming “Papenhuyzen!” or “Sivo!” or any other player’s name for the last time. Sunday matches leading into the 6pm news bulletin, the State of Origin monolith and the finals series mean too much to Nine.

Rather, the attack on the NRL was seen as purely strategic as Marks plays hardball in renegotiating the broadcast deal. He argues the game is an inferior product if it isn’t played before crowds and the season extends into October, November and December.

In doing so, though, the statement is an extraordinary smackdown of the NRL’s culture, and in particular Greenberg, who was claiming only days ago talks with Nine had been quite “positive” and “productive”.

Meanwhile, V’landys has been rather effusive in his praise of Marks in recent days, telling the Herald earlier this week: “Hugh is a good man. He’s a very good CEO. He’s looking after Channel Nine’s interests …”

Marks was approached for comment for this piece but declined.

Playing hardball is one thing, but some have seen the play as opportunistic. Nine might broadcast the game, it might pay the NRL handsomely, but it doesn’t own the game.

And who is Nine to tell the NRL how to waste its money anyway?

Houston, we have a problem

Is Project Apollo going to look more like Apollo 11 (which reached the Moon) or Apollo 13 (which didn’t and became a Tom Hanks movie)?

After a meeting-a-thon on Thursday, club bosses were left feeling that June 4 was a more realistic start date than May 28, which the NRL announced it is now aiming for.

“It was a waste of time,” huffed one chief executive. “We’d read it all in the paper already.”

What’s clear is that the idea of players locking down in a “bubble” has been burst. The only thing that really matters now is working out how the NRL can get around border issues with Queensland and New Zealand.

You can bet a whole lot of Kiwis on either side of the Tasman will be watching with interest to see if the Warriors get preferential treatment in coming into the country.

Raelene Castle was close to announcing a rich new broadcast deal with Optus before coronavirus changed everything.

Raelene Castle was close to announcing a rich new broadcast deal with Optus before coronavirus changed everything.Credit:Getty

Siege of Castle

And you thought they only played the Blame Game in rugby league!

Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle is under heavy fire as the embattled code struggles through uncertain times — and, in many respects, she deserves it.

It explains the deep level of frustration and pain felt by the many people who still love and care for the game.

That said, Castle’s crucifixion for not agreeing to a deal with long-time broadcaster Fox Sports pre-coronavirus is unfair.

Sources familiar with negotiations report she was only a week away from stitching up a lucrative deal with Optus, one that was far better than the offer on the table from Fox Sports, which had been bullying her for weeks into agreeing to terms.

That’s right: a week. Then the coronavirus went and spoiled it all by doing something stupid like infecting nearly 1.5m people across the world.

The Rugby Union Players Association might also be at war with Castle but a couple of staffers on the lowest of wages at RA tell this column she exhausted every option in trying to save their jobs.

Interim chairman Paul McLean has declared that Castle has “the full support of the board” — never a great sign — but it is unlikely she will be frogmarched anytime soon.

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