When I took the job on, I said I’d be a traditional chairman — unless there’s an emergency. I said at my first press conference, “I’ll see you in 12 months”. For my first four months, I was very quiet. Then the coronavirus struck.
You’ve said you should never have shut the game down. Are you serious when you say that?
Public relations-wise, it would’ve been difficult. People would’ve asked, “Why is rugby league still going and we’re not?” It would’ve been a nightmare, along with the closure of the borders. But racing proved you can do it properly if you follow the correct biosecurity measures. People say players are spitting all over each other. But if they’re all negative, what does it matter?
How do you know they’re all negative if you haven’t conducted blanket tests?
I’ve done all this through analysis, not gut feeling. The legal adviser at Racing NSW stuck the idea in my head. He asked, “What are you doing to get the game back? What analysis are you doing?” I said, “What analysis do you think I should be doing?” He said I should be looking at the infection rate. I dug deep into the figures. Sixty per cent [of infections] came from overseas and 15 to 20 per cent from the Ruby Princess. Once you’ve closed the borders, 60 per cent of the risk has gone. When we stopped the competition, the infection rate was 25 per cent. Every day since, it’s gone down.
You’ve rattled off infection rates numerous times. Common sense would suggest it’s become negligible because we’ve been in lockdown.
I’m different to you. It’s dropped because they shut the borders. As soon as we shut the borders, I knew it would be safe.
Your first pandemic expert didn’t think it would be …
I listened to her because of the Ruby Princess. I think she was a bit extreme.
What if I put to her that you dumped her because you didn’t like her advice?
Well, no. She’s given us advice that hasn’t proven correct. I’m not blaming the lady for that. But I’m not going back to a person who’s already given me incorrect advice. That’s why all these people have remained anonymous.
You’ve denied this before but I’m not buying it: you’re happy to be restarting ahead of the AFL.
Subconsciously, you’re probably right. At times I’ve looked at them and had a giggle. The first thing I said to Wayne Pearce, who heads Project Apollo, is that we won’t be using “bubbles”. We’ll just need self-isolation — and I was right. Three weeks later, the AFL was still looking at bubbles. But no: I was more worried about us and making sure my predictions were the right ones. I said, nine weeks ago, that we could train in Victoria and Queensland — at that stage we couldn’t. I said the Warriors could come over — at that stage we couldn’t …
You’ve been fascinating to watch from close range. The Prime Minister smacked you down twice in four days about the Warriors getting a travel exemption — and then it happened.
That’s my style. The same thing happened with the race fields legislation. [In 2008, V’landys successfully argued in the High Court that corporate bookmakers needed to pay racing for use of its product]. For four years that dominated my life. That’s now generating billions of dollars for racing. That was a lot harder than this. The race fields issue made me tougher because I realised I could put up with personal abuse. I discovered the “delete” button. But I get good publicity too.
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the game’s financial frailties. You’ve been critical, so has Peter Beattie. He’s a former chairman and you’ve been on the commission for two years, signing off on budgets and executive bonuses. Surely you need to wear some of the blame.
If anyone wanted to look at the minutes, every meeting I raised concerns. When the budgets came through, I rejected them. You can only challenge so much. To Peter Beattie’s credit, when he came on board he realised the greatest problem this organisation has is that it has no assets. And the cash that was there was bullshit because we owed $80 million to the broadcasters. Of the $104 million we had, we only had $30 million or so. To the broadcasters’ credit, they haven’t called on that money. If they did, we were stuffed.
The NRL has been trying to save clubs from themselves for years. Why will you be different?
Because there’s been a relationship between the NRL and the clubs for the first time. We’re in the trenches together. The biggest mistake this organisation has made is that it’s treated the clubs as second-rate citizens. They’re our shareholders. They’re the brand. The thing is there’s a lot of unity at the moment, between the NRL, clubs and players union. [RLPA chief executive] Clint Newton is a smart operator.
Some players think he’s too close to you …
I think they’re wrong. Relationships are the greatest asset I have; with politicians, media moguls … I’ve built that over a long period of time. Clint has realised you get more bees with honey than vinegar. He’s got more for the players by having a relationship with me than he would’ve got if he was confrontational. I’m the sort of person who would be twice as confrontational back. The referees have become confrontational. They don’t have a seat at the table. The referees ask, “Why aren’t we treated like the players?” Because we have a relationship.
What about your relationship with Channel Nine [publisher of this masthead]?
I genuinely believe that Channel Nine didn’t want to be there but I’m confident in the next month there will a long-term deal with Nine.
Do you really believe they were going to walk away? They were negotiating a better deal, surely.
I do. [Nine chief executive] Hugh Marks is a very good businessman. If I had a public company, I’d want him to be a CEO. If you look at rugby league purely on a business case, you can understand his reasoning. He was making losses on it.
Was Channel Seven interested?
No. They are heavily invested in the AFL and have a chairman in Kerry Stokes who is AFL obsessed. It was never an option in my eyes.
People question the wisdom of brokering a long-term broadcast deal when the NRL is at its weakest. Thoughts?
Forget where we’re at right now. I went to the US and did my research and analysis about where the sports broadcast market is. I’m getting no less than what I was prepared to take before the coronavirus crisis came in. It’s a good deal for us.
Getting the same money in seven years’ time that you’re getting now is a good deal?
I think it will be better because we’ve carved a few things out. I can’t be more specific because it’s commercially sensitive. I’ve really appreciated the advice of [Fox Corp executive chairman] Lachlan Murdoch.
He’s doing a deal with the NFL in America. I’m working on the same strategy the NFL has. In my view, there’s a lifespan for traditional media, which gives you the maximum return for broadcast rights. The rest will give you revenue share and you have to provide production. That won’t produce the rivers of gold that we get now. The longer we have the traditional model, the more chance we have to build up our asset base. It gives us more certainty because we know what our revenues and costs are going to be over a long period of time. There’s a price for certainty.
Doesn’t a long-term deal also secure the future of Fox Sports, which is owned by the Murdochs?
Lachlan’s taking a bigger risk than I am.
Financial crisis is one thing. But were the new rules, and reverting to one referee, really emergencies?
The words of the broadcasters kept ringing in my ears. If you don’t listen to the people who provide the revenue, you’re an idiot. They believe the game has become staid and boring. I just think the game has to become more entertaining. I also speak to a lot of fans. The magnitude of the success in my life is that I treat all people the same. The fans are the bread and butter. I’m representing them. I represent the bricklayers from Wollongong. I’m not a private school kid. I’ve had to fight for everything. My connections are my people. The bricklayers …
My father is a bricklayer. He hates wrestling. But he’s also worried about the restart of the season being trashed by refereeing dramas. What do you say to him?
I’ll wear the criticism if that happens. I’ve taken punches on the chin for others many times. I’ll cop the blame. In my own little mind, I feel like I’ve got enough runs on the board.
Why not bring in the interchange reduction, then? That’s the best move out of the lot.
Don’t tempt me.
It was telling you ignored the advice of Roosters chairman Nick Politis, who didn’t want one referee.
Nick has never sought from me something for himself or his club. I genuinely believe, in my head, that I have no agendas, no baggage. Everyone says, “Oh, he’s Nick Politis’ man”. The Roosters were the fourth club to approach me to come onto the commission.
You consider him to be a future chairman, though?
I do. Nick has done a lot for the game but he’s a tall poppy and people want to bring him down. Why wouldn’t you want one of Australia’s best businessmen on your board? I don’t want to be here forever — but I’m here to make decisions and to live by them.
The criticism of Todd Greenberg was that he wasn’t prepared to make hard decisions …
I don’t want to talk about Todd. He’s moved on and we’ve moved forward.
You’ve become noticeably uncomfortable at the very mention of his name.
Only because I want him to move forward. I don’t want him blamed for things. If he’s down and out, why kick him? Let him get a job somewhere else.
The word inside the NRL is that you’re $1.04 to become executive chairman later this year.
No, I don’t want the job.
You’re waiting to be asked …
I won’t do it. I’ve said “no” so many times.
You’ve never wanted to be chief executive? Never coveted it? Never crossed your mind?
It crossed my mind but that’s as far as it went.
You call the game “rugba league”. It’s awesome … but why?
[Laughs] I didn’t even know I was saying it. I don’t know where it comes from. It’s just how I say it. But I’m not going to change. That’s just me. I am who I am.
Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.