This is the National Rugby League, on its good days the most popular TV sporting spectacle in Australia. On its bad days? “Greenberg’s killing this game,” the man next to me says, unasked.
Todd Greenberg, NRL chief executive since 2016, did not invent video refereeing, but he doubled down on it, plunging $2 million into the state-of-the-art Bunker, which commenced operations in 2017. For many spectators, and league luminaries from Andrew Johns to Phil Gould who have pronounced the innovation a failure, the villain is the “Bunker guy”.
Jump forward a month. A balmy evening, first night of spring, on the Gold Coast. The luxurious Cbus Super Stadium is packed with 27,000 fans and another disputed decision has gone to the Bunker. This same Greenberg, killer of the game, is sitting next to me. He’s excited, though not as much as a nearby Gold Coast Titans fan, whose head might explode into his beer glass if the Bunker doesn’t rule his team’s way. Greenberg is excited because this is a marquee night for rugby league, a celebration of all-time great Johnathan Thurston’s last appearance for the North Queensland Cowboys, and both teams are putting on a spectacle that feeds rugby league’s self-declaration as the greatest game of all. Greenberg is also excited because of the Bunker.
“People bag the Bunker,” he says, “but this time three years ago you had a single referee with a tiny screen sitting behind us, and this guy [the one with the beer] would have been banging on his window.” The decision comes down quickly and accurately. “That was under 40 seconds,” Greenberg says, soothed by the warm embrace of good data.
Same Bunker, two stories. As in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, these are the best of times and the worst of times for rugby league. Under Greenberg’s stewardship, the game’s income is at a historic high, forecast to hit $530 million in 2018, rising from $400 million in 2017. More than half comes from broadcast rights – among its season-long output, the NRL provides four free-to-air TV programs (the three State of Origin fixtures and the NRL grand final) that are consistently among the top five rating programs nationally – while another $170 million comes mainly from sponsorship, merchandising, and ticket sales to major events.
Participation stands at nearly 800,000, with impressive increases in women’s rugby league, modified formats for children, and the non-contact variants touch and tag. An expensive, optimistic digital strategy has been launched to bring the game to millions of personal devices via live streaming and other direct fan-to-club communications. Professional players’ annual salaries have reached an average of $330,000, a record high, as is the $13 million a year each NRL club receives from the league. Club memberships have climbed to 350,000 and the league will be the prime beneficiary of the NSW Government’s plan to redevelop its stadiums in Parramatta, Homebush and Moore Park.
And yet, just like the contrast between Thurston’s night on the Gold Coast and a shivering second-rate affair in suburban Sydney, rugby league’s health also conceals its ills. Participation numbers hide the fact that the traditional 13-a-side sport has stagnated at around 170,000 participants, with long-term decline in the key boys’ 13-to-18 age group. The Australian Football League has almost twice the number of participants (1.5 million) with 697,000 playing in competitions – up 10 per cent last year. Rugby league’s TV ratings are treading water in a dropping tide, its lead exaggerated by its football rivals’ falling audiences in a shrinking free-to-air environment. The NRL clubs raise about $200 million in overall revenue, but only half break even, whereas the AFL’s clubs contribute more than $400 million. AFL clubs have 1 million combined members, almost three times the NRL’s total club membership.
The NRL has so far evaded the public battering the NSW Government received over its controversial plan to spend $1.8 billion refurbishing or rebuilding the Olympic Stadium at Homebush, Allianz Stadium at Moore Park and Parramatta Stadium, turning all three into league-friendly rectangular arenas. But if rugby league crowds do not grow to fill these new arenas, there will be hell to pay.
Todd Greenberg’s job is to walk this tightrope between prosperity and anxiety, sparkle and underbelly. You see this in the minutiae of his day at work. On the way to the Gold Coast game, the driver (not a rugby league supporter) can’t get the chief executive close to the stadium. Spectators double-take when they see the shaven-headed 47-year-old CEO in tan blazer and open-necked shirt walking in. He receives no direct abuse, but at the Titans’ match-day function in its stadium VIP room, the Palladium Club, the MC welcomes a long list of dignitaries but not Greenberg, who jokes that it’s probably because he has just poached the Titans’ CEO, Graham Annesley, for head office.
Popularity in sport attaches to clubs and players, not the governing body whose officials are outside making sure the goalposts are straight and the TV cables are plugged in and the medical technology is working, and, most conspicuously, providing the referees who absorb the fans’ frustration. Nobody is here to notice the NRL administration, until it stuffs up.
Prosperity has not come without pain. Some of the game’s most influential commentators have been gunning for Greenberg. In the days before the Gold Coast game, Paul Kent of the News Corp tabloids said Greenberg was “not fit for office” and “should resign” after not punishing the Cronulla player Andrew Fifita for a potty-mouthed podcast. Greenberg, according to Kent, is “not a leader” and a “jerk”. A month ago, Kent said Greenberg “deliberately misleads the rugby league public” and is “embarrassing the game”. His News Corp colleague at The Daily Telegraph, Phil Rothfield, has persistently called for Greenberg’s head. Nine’s Phil Gould (also general manager at Penrith Panthers) has called Greenberg’s strategy to stem falling participation “an abject failure”. This is standard discourse in what The Sydney Morning Herald’s Roy Masters calls “the world’s greatest soap opera”.
Greenberg absorbs the criticism. “It’s an industry that fundamentally needs to create news,” he says. “Those commentators are paid to create debate. We are confronted with decisions weekly that will be controversial and will upset a section of the community.” Greenberg’s unruffled response is, inevitably, also held against him. I have asked league people, on and off the record, to summarise Greenberg in one word. I ask him, “When people say, ‘Todd Greenberg is a …’, what word do you think they use?”
“Politician,” he says.
Got it in one.
There are real politicians in the Titans’ Palladium Club– the local federal member, a brace of mayors, even Annesley, a former NSW Liberal state minister – and while they work the room, Greenberg spends dinner glued to another league game on his 19-year-old son Cooper’s phone via the NRL app. Greenberg’s wife, Lisa, a personal trainer who confesses to refreshingly little knowledge of rugby league, is also here, and the three of them could be on the couch in their living room, a family pod swimming inside the rugby league fishbowl.
Family gives a safety and perspective to Greenberg – the eldest of four children of a middle-class insurance officer, a selective school student (Sydney Technical High School) and university graduate (bachelor in sports science, masters in management) – working in this proudly proletarian code. He’s a talented cricketer whose life is in football, a Jewish boy who cut his teeth at the Canterbury Bulldogs club, in the heart of Sydney’s Lebanese community. This insider-outsider hybrid is where the modern sporting executive has arrived after decades of evolution.
The chief of rugby league has always been the face of the game, though it used to be a craggy, beaten-up one. Harry “Jersey” Flegg and Bill Buckley were, in journalist and historian Ian Heads’s words, “hard-edged, working-class, ex-first graders with a good feel for the game”. At the NSW Rugby League’s fiery Monday night meetings at its headquarters in Sydney’s Phillip Street, notes Heads, “there were beers beforehand, and when they went into the committee stage, they’d say, ‘pens down’ but let the media stay in the room.”
This edifice cracked when Kevin Humphreys, a former Balmain first-grader and league boss from 1973 into the early 1980s, was exposed as corrupt by Chris Masters’ 1983 “Big League” Four Corners program, which prompted the Street Royal Commission into judicial corruption. Humphreys would receive a criminal conviction. John Quayle, who managed the game until and during the Super League war, and Neil Whittaker, the peacetime compromise candidate, were the last of the ex-first-graders in the top job. This then passed to professional managers: David Moffett (1999-2001), a former rugby union administrator, former lawyer David Gallop (2002-2012) and the English banker David Smith, who managed the game for two years before a brief period of executive chairmanship under John Grant led to Greenberg’s appointment in 2016.
While Moffett, Gallop and Smith came from outside the club system, Greenberg was a blend. Between jobs with Cricket NSW and the Olympic Stadium at Homebush, he served at the Canterbury Bulldogs, eventually as CEO from 2008 until 2013. The Bulldogs were strife-torn when Greenberg took over, recovering from a salary cap cheating scandal in 2002, rape allegations from a 2004 Coffs Harbour pre-season camp, and the cultural dissolution of the family fiefdoms that had long dominated the club. So low was Canterbury’s reputation that when Greenberg tried to give its jersey sponsorship to children’s cancer charity Camp Quality, the organisation wanted nothing to do with the team, even for free.
At Canterbury, Greenberg earned a name for attention to detail. New recruits appreciated that he had personally stocked their fridges. He rebuilt the Bulldogs’ organisation with club chairmen George Peponis and Ray Dib, and when he arrived at NRL head office, the times suited his image of technocratic and communications competence. An example of Greenberg’s managerial style came in the negotiations towards a collective bargaining agreement with the Rugby League Players Association (RLPA) in 2017. Greenberg delegated senior executive Nick Weeks to deal with the players association over months of negotiations.
“It was clever of him to delegate that,” says Roy Masters. “It avoided headlines of Greenberg versus the players, and allowed him to come in late.”
Which he did. “It wasn’t until Todd got more actively involved that we saw progress,” notes RLPA chief executive Ian Prendergast. “I would describe Todd as being very pragmatic in wanting to do the best for the game.” The deal gave greater incentives to players to avoid the routine rugby league atrocities. RLPA president Cameron Smith told Greenberg that players felt like the game’s indentured servants: “We turn up, take our cheques and walk away. We’ve got more to give.” Greenberg replied, “I’m absolutely prepared to pay more, if we’re going to get more for the game. If to incentivise you to talk the game up, talk positively about the sport, to actively engage in programs that drive additional revenue, to be good people on and off the field, all of that increases revenues which mean you get a bigger cheque.”
Prendergast felt that Greenberg gained confidence from a new boss – John Grant’s successor as Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) chairman, Peter Beattie, gave Greenberg more freedom to operate – and the players developed more trust in the NRL. The collective agreement delivered incentives, which pleased Prendergast, who developed respect for Greenberg’s effectiveness. “He served a decent apprenticeship, having been around the block a couple of times,” Prendergast says. “It would be nice for the game to have continuity in its leadership. We’re happy to continue working with Todd.”
The result remains a work in progress. Two days after the feel-good farewell for Johnathan Thurston, Canterbury Bulldogs players were on the tabloid front pages, naked, throwing up and lying dead-drunk in public after their Mad Monday celebrations, looking anything but incentivised about improving the game’s image.
Greenberg fined his old club $250,000, and was criticised for overkill – not on the NRL’s own website, however. The NRL has a digital news unit staffed with experienced journalists operating under a statement of editorial independence approved by the NRL board. There has already been tension between head office and the unit over control. Rebekah Horne, the NRL’s chief digital officer, says there have been “robust discussions” about the unit’s role.
“We are not ambulance chasers,” she says, admitting that the unit’s news values are still being developed. As with several US sports and, in Australia, the AFL and Cricket Australia with internally-run websites, its overall mission is promotional. “Having been a rugby league tragic since the 1980s, I felt that I knew the players’ characters back then, whereas now they were a row of jerseys with their arms crossed,” Horne says. “There are a lot of stories there to be told so that we can get to know these characters better.”
That said, Horne believes that “you don’t die wondering in rugby league … When a story is out there, you have to go with it, you can’t ignore it, and our journalists follow the code of ethics and can help add context to these stories.” Greenberg, she says, has defended the unit’s independence. “He has a remarkable ability to be consistent and calm and, personally, he’s helped me navigate through situations … sometimes I can be a bull in a china shop, but Todd is always calm.”
Rugby league generates more controversy than most sports, and will be more challenged than others in walking the delicate line between controlling the message and maintaining credibility. Greenberg’s view is that the unit “doesn’t need to break the news or put out salacious commentary, it only needs to report the facts”. But he is not so naive as to think those lines will not blur, and agrees that “there’s nothing more certain than that one day they will want to break a story and test the independence of the policy”. When an NRL-employed journalist finds a star player drunk in a gutter or cutting lines of cocaine, Greenberg will be forced to show how robust the NRL’s commitment to editorial independence really is.
Sports administrators often bring to mind a story told by the American sportswriter Rick Reilly, who likened them to police who, in front of a microphone, will say, “We apprehended the offender after a prolonged pursuit,” but later, over coffee and a doughnut, will say, “Man, we chased this fruitcake everywhere!” One of Greenberg’s trademarks is to speak straight. Amid controversy, he tells league to “grow up”. When I ask for his vision, it comes in plain English: “More watching, more playing.”
Greenberg comes across as likeable and straight. But league people want to know where he intends to take the game in the next decade, and he gives an honest exposition of how he breaks his job down into “managing”, “communicating” and “leading”, and how his initial 24 months have been consumed by the first two. But the vision is still coming. When I ask about the legacy he wants to leave, Greenberg talks about “taking the game into new markets”, making it safer through concussion protocols (“Some people said we were making it soft, but it’s not soft, it’s safe”), and the strength of the team working behind him at the NRL, but he never quite arrives at the legacy.
There is a sense that Greenberg is a good fireman – which rugby league has always needed – and is excellent on the softer issues such as welfare and promotions, but still doesn’t know where he wants to take the game. If it’s a new frontier, it won’t be the US in the immediate term. A few days after we talk, it emerges that a proposal for a 2019 NRL season opener in America is likely to be canned for lack of finance.
Elite sports administrators are a club within themselves, who meet both formally and informally to share knowledge. Greenberg says the predecessor he most admires is Gallop, “who deserves enormous respect for his place in the game. He oversaw it in a very difficult era without a governance model.” Gallop, CEO of Football Federation Australia since 2012, describes the job: “A well-run sport, like a well-run business, has a solid strategic plan, which is similar in most major Australian sports: growing pathways and broad participation, running exciting, eagerly watched national competitions that generate revenue for the whole ecosystem, including properly funding a national team program.”
The personal requirements are common across the codes, Gallop says. “As sport also throws up the unexpected, you have to have a solid approach to the so-called crises and react calmly with a good framework of rules and processes to deal with them. The volume of newspaper print dedicated to rugby league every day speaks to how high the level of interest is. It is a tough game with some brutal aspects, both on and off the playing field.
“People love the soap opera and drama, and those in charge need to be aware of all the moving parts and keep their wits about them,” Gallop adds. “I used to say that egos, personal agendas and long-held grudges are driving forces in rugby league. I don’t see that much has changed.”
A thick skin and a cool head are paramount. Andrew Demetriou, AFL chief executive from 2003 to 2014, recalls meeting Cricket Australia’s CEO James Sutherland in a park one morning last March playing cricket with his daughter; that night, Sutherland was on his way to South Africa to deal with one of the sport’s biggest scandals, the ball-tampering affair. “You can’t train for dealing with the unexpected,” Demetriou says. “At the AFL, my diary was organised well in advance for meetings, but then something unexpected would come up: a club was on its knees, a player was caught with drugs. You have to be ready for anything.”
Rugby league’s demand for athleticism, brutality and tribalism are also what makes it prone to what Roy Masters describes as “a new atrocity every week … Because the clubs have such rivalry among themselves, these issues turn into NRL issues. I think Greenberg’s grown in confidence after there was some suspicion at the start that he was too close to some player agents and had some baggage from his time at the Bulldogs.”
Most prominent was the case of Ben Barba, a then-Bulldog player accused of domestic violence. Greenberg has consistently denied any specific knowledge while he was at the Bulldogs. Barba later reunited with his partner Ainslie Currie, who received a supportive phone call from Greenberg when the player was sacked by his next club, Cronulla, for testing positive to cocaine in 2016. After two years playing in England’s Super League, Barba will reappear in the NRL in 2019 with the North Queensland Cowboys.
The job requires more than putting out fires, however. Demetriou says that when he began at the AFL, “Some 85 to 90 per cent of meetings were about the game rules, tribunal, scoreboard, grass growing, sirens not working, the drug code. I was sick of coming to meetings to talk about the rules. We needed to be talking about revenue and getting more sophisticated in generating money to plough back into football.” By the time he handed over to Gillon McLachlan, the job had changed beyond recognition. Its five-year television rights income has risen from $780 million in 2005, to $1.25 billion in 2012, to its current $2.5 billion. Tens of millions more comes through sponsorship deals and merchandise sales.
“You had to have a much more commercial view. When I left, you were communicating constantly with the media, clubs, players, broadcasters, corporate partners, government, venues and, most importantly, the public. If you can’t manage and communicate issues concurrently, you shouldn’t apply.”
The NRL has followed a similar path, its annual revenue rising from $66 million in 2005 to around $500 million during the current broadcast deal. But professionalisation does not proceed in an orderly fashion. Demetriou observes: “You can have club directors who are on the boards of ASX-listed companies, but when they get on to a football club they leave their brain at the door. They are passionate and can become totally irrational, and they arrive at the meeting saying, ‘Don’t worry about the money we’re losing every month, what about Fred’s hamstring?'”
While Peter Beattie’s ARLC has given Greenberg more independence, Greenberg’s most persistent interrogator at board meetings is another member of the sports CEOs’ club, Peter V’Landys, the head of Racing NSW. Appointed to the ARLC this year, V’Landys has been touted as a possible successor to Greenberg. (He refutes this, saying “my only ambition in league might be as chairman of the board when Peter goes.”) But V’Landys admits to testing Greenberg’s mettle.
“I’m probably the most outspoken in meetings and he gets more heat from me, but I’m being tough because when he goes out in public I want to make sure he’s got all the bases covered.” So far, Greenberg has met V’Landys’ expectations. “I know he gets called a politician, but he’s putting the NRL’s side of the story and that’s what he should be doing, defending the game.
“If by ‘politician’ people mean he’s all talk and no action, I think that’s quite inaccurate. He is very ambitious for the game and active in implementing policies set by the board. He’s a good delegator and holds his people to account. He’s very good with the board, he’s intelligent and he’s the right person for the job.”
Demetriou has this to say about what makes someone admired in sports management. “The public is sick of spin and they respect decisiveness. People would say to me, ‘I hate that decision but thank god you made it.'”
Greenberg projects decisiveness. This year, he ordered game officials to tighten up on rule infringements. Under a hailstorm of criticism, he then decreed a relaxation. He copped flak both times, but the salient point was that the NRL is self-determining, unlike sports such as rugby union and cricket, where the rules are set by international organisations after lengthy consultation. Greenberg can issue instant directives. When in mid-year a group of league elders convened to honour the next group of “Immortals”, they were unsure of the protocols around recognising past players whom they had not seen play. “Todd came into the room, heard the arguments and said, ‘Right, do it,’ just like that,” says Ian Heads, the panel chairman.
Likewise, Greenberg has been a quick decision-maker on welfare issues. Ralph Kelly had befriended Greenberg after Kelly’s elder son Thomas was killed in a one-punch attack by a junior rugby league player in 2012. The week after Kelly’s younger son, Stuart, took his life in mid-2016, Greenberg called to ask permission for a minute’s silence at the next week’s league round. Then Greenberg proposed a remembrance day for Stuart, a Parramatta Eels fan. “It bowled me over,” Kelly says. “It was so kind of him to even think about that.”
The NRL instituted the Stay Kind Cup, in Stuart’s honour, for the Wests Tigers’ annual home match against the Parramatta Eels. Weeks after Stuart’s death, the Cronulla player Andrew Fifita wore a wristband in support of Thomas’s killer during an NRL game. The next morning, Greenberg was on the phone to Kelly to offer solace. The NRL fined Fifita $20,000, falling short of the life ban Kelly called for.
“The culture of the game is about doing good for others,” Greenberg says. “It shines through in adversity that the game stands up for their communities and their fellows in need. It’s authentic, it’s never been manufactured.” Greenberg has been quick to act compassionately, supporting match officials when leading referee Matt Cecchin announced he was retiring this year after receiving death threats. Greenberg’s emphasis on mental health for officials, and for players via the enforcement of concussion rules, are trademarks. On participation, universally agreed as the game’s greatest challenge, Greenberg is targeting women’s rugby league and non-contact forms such as touch and tag. But the NRL’s showcase is so physically brutal that it is not its own best advertisement for participation.
“Our greatest strength is sometimes our greatest weakness,” Greenberg agrees. “Mums and dads want to watch NRL, but might not want their kids to play it. We’re changing by talking about rugby league as a whole sport, that people can play in many ways, while the NRL is just the elite competition.”
The elite players remain rugby league’s heroes. The final-round game Greenberg attends on the Gold Coast would normally attract fewer than 10,000 spectators. The house fills for Thurston. Great players can do that. But great players retire. The NRL has enjoyed a golden generation of talent – Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, Thurston – who will soon be gone. “We can’t deny that we’ve been lucky,” Greenberg says. “Luck plays an awfully big part in this.”
League’s administrators are not its heroes, but Greenberg is asked for selfies with fans leaving the match. Lisa and Cooper wait patiently to one side. He remembers going to a Parramatta game after the NRL penalised the club for salary cap cheating. “I went with Cooper. We were walking along and an old lady came up. She looked like she was going to attack me, but she grabbed me and kissed me and said, ‘You needed to clean this club up.’ It was good to hear that, and not what I expected.”
But there are two sides to every story. Cooper chips in: “It wasn’t the only feedback you got that day.”
To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age.
Malcolm Knox is a journalist, author and columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.