News Corp ownership of rugby league could return as Nine plays hardball

Nine boss Hugh Marks told a meeting of analysts and investors on Tuesday afternoon that “it is not a given that NRL has to be part of our future”.

It was a statement which fits into the Chinese curse category. A peaceful three decades of Nine owning four of the top five programs nationally – rugby league’s three State of Origin matches, together with the NRL grand final – threatens to be upset by troubled times ahead.

Sure, streaming has killed off the so-called halo effect in free-to-air TV. The idea of paying overs for sport because viewers will stay with the network after the football, rather than switch to a rival channel, has been undermined by streaming services, such as Netflix and even Nine’s own product Stan.

The rights for State of Origin could be on the move for the first time in three decades as the NRL’s TV imbroglio continues.Credit:AAP

The news Nine may walk away from NRL caused what one might call cautious joy over at Foxtel. Executives at the Rupert Murdoch-owned network concede that the traditional FTA model is under siege. However, they also see Nine’s threat, including the bid for AFL, as a negotiating ploy to lower the payment it will make to Peter V’landys’ ARLC for the remainder of this disrupted season.
Somewhat contradictorily, considering Marks’ threat, Nine would like to add another three years to the existing TV contract which concludes in 2022.

Still, Foxtel would be delighted to own all of the broadcasting of rugby league, rebranding the pay TV network NRL TV, making it a one-stop shop for the code.

Yes, but what about anti-siphoning laws? Doesn’t the federal government insist nationally interesting sports be available free to viewers?

Rugby league would once again be effectively owned by Rupert but would NRL clubs care if they were paid a motza?

Channel Ten would be interested in the two games a week the NRL is committed to show on FTA TV, the finals and Origin.

But Global Sport and Media’s Colin Smith has come up with a scenario far more lucrative for Foxtel and one Murdoch would blow his already overburdened budget to make happen.

“Foxtel could offer matches currently on the anti-siphoning list to Kayo,” said Smith of Foxtel’s streaming service, which has leaked thousands of subscribers since March when NRL and AFL competitions stopped.

“Subscribers wouldn’t pay anything. They would simply select the matches that are free and opt out of the other Foxtel matches and sports programs.

“Sure, they would have to have the Foxtel streaming service installed but it would be zero cost to them.

“It becomes an excellent marketing tool for Foxtel, with the aim viewers will eventually pay for the matches not on the anti-siphoning list, just as subscribers tailor their Foxtel packages to meet their budgets.”

Rugby league would once again be effectively owned by Rupert but would NRL clubs care if they were paid a motza?


V’landys has been historically close to News Corporation via his role as chief executive of Racing NSW, buying space for race fields in newspapers. A similar, smaller deal exists with The Sydney Morning Herald.

He has achieved deals with NRL clubs, players and state and federal governments to restart the season on May 28 but is yet to finalise agreements with Nine and Foxtel over how much they will pay for a shortened and crowdless year.

In these “interesting times” maybe V’landys will evoke another Chinese proverb, reminding Nine of the valuable vision about to sate the sports-deprived appetites of the viewing public from May 28: “One (TV) picture is worth ten thousand words (dollars).”

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