Seven West Media boss James Warburton, who didn’t return calls on Wednesday, has a close long-time relationship with NRL boss Todd Greenberg and is monitoring the code’s broadcast squabble as Seven positions itself as a potential partner should the NRL need to seek an alternative free-to-air broadcaster.
Uncertainty around the AFL, in combination with the postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games, the cancellation of Wimbledon and the prospect of India not being able to tour Australia for the summer of cricket, could leave Seven with some funds to make a play at rugby league.
NRL matches are included on the Australian anti-siphoning list and there are currently three matches on free-to-air TV. That could mean there will be pressure on the NRL to ensure there is at least the same number of free-to-air matches going forward, which opens the door for Seven, despite its poor financial position.
Channel Seven’s AFL ratings in NSW and Queensland remain unimpressive, although NRL content would provide a much-needed boost to its eastern seaboard markets.
At a crucial meeting between the current broadcast partners and the NRL on Thursday at V’landys’ Racing NSW offices, Nine is expected to outline its desire for exclusive games and a willingness to part ways with the Thursday night game. It also wants exclusive games on Friday and Sunday.
It is expected Fox Sports will not agree to sacrificing the entire collection of weekly matches, basing its subscription service around an ‘‘every game, live and ad-free’’ sell.
Agreeing to hand Nine exclusivity would rob Fox Sports of the best games of the round, with the free-to-air network given first preference on matches.
Nine also want to discuss the removal of the Friday 6pm game, which Fox broadcasts against the free-to-air network’s news.
Channel Nine has experienced a decline in the Friday 8pm game ratings, something Fox Sports is well aware of and unwilling to compromise given the number of viewers who stay with Fox from the first to second Friday night game.
Nine’s preference, largely in a bid to bank the $130 million saving it announced to the stock exchange last week, would be for the NRL to wait until crowds are allowed back before the season resumes – even if it means no rugby league until 2021.
That won’t cut it with the NRL or Fox Sports, who are desperate to return as soon as possible to ensure the financial viability of the respective organisations.
It’s anticipated Nine’s tactic will be to stall. Prolong discussions for as long as possible to ensure there is less content to pay for.
Michael Chammas is a sports reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald