What will stand up in the court room as “fulfiling contractual obligations”, which is interpreted differently depending on who on you ask, is an argument nobody intends to have.
It’s why a 17-round season, beginning on May 28 was agreed as a minimum at a meeting between ARLC chairman Peter V’landys, Foxtel boss Patrick Delany and Nine chief executive Hugh Marks on Friday afternoon.
The rest, which includes the potential for a maximum 20-round competition, will depend on how much the NRL is willing to sacrifice.
Roughly, the NRL gets about $11 million from its broadcasters per round – $8 million from Fox Sports for all eight games and $3 million from Nine for Thursday night, Friday night and Sunday afternoon games.
It’s no secret Nine has been looking to save as much money as possible from its rugby league deal in 2020, so it’s safe to assume if one of the two broadcasters expressed an unwillingness to pay for more than the 17-round season, it was the free-to-air network.
If only Nine doesn’t pay, the NRL will be about $9 million down if it plays another three rounds. That skyrockets by about $24 million if Fox follows suit.
Fox Sports is desperate for content to provide its subscribers, but no one could blame the pay-TV network for not wanting to pay for a product that Nine could get for free for up to as many as the final three rounds.
The alternative the NRL now faces is lowering the broadcast fee per round, a way of appeasing Fox if Nine doesn’t pay.
It’s either that or upset club powerbrokers, including one of V’landys’ biggest advocates in Roosters boss Nick Politis, who are questioning the integrity and authenticity of a shortened competition.
Other clubs aren’t as concerned about an asterisk next to the 2020 Telstra Premiership winner, with one prominent figure reminding clubs there’ll be an asterisk against the history of mankind when it comes to this calendar year.
Talk around the Twenty20 World Cup being the reason for delaying what V’landys on Friday said would be “D-day” is legitimate.
There was a genuine belief among all parties that a decision on a potential postponement was imminent. However, Cricket Australia boss Kevin Roberts has now indicated a decision will not be made until August.
Both Fox Sports and Nine share the rights to the Twenty20 World Cup. Fox has separate rugby league and cricket channels, so it is not as worried about any potential clash.
This column understands Nine has contractual commitments to play all Australian matches, as well as the semi-finals and finals, on its main channel. It has similar conditions in its broadcast rights deal with NRL games in NSW and Queensland.
No one has the appetite or financial backing to see this played out in court, so V’landys will make the decision on how long the season will go.
An outcome that slightly compromises both the integrity of the season and the financial future of the game seems most likely.
Michael Chammas is a sports reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald