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I don?t think any sports analysis or Rugby League fan would disagree come October last year the 2004 Rugby League season was looking like it could be the best ever. The news only just continued to get better, Carlton and United and Gatorade came on board to support the lower levels of the game, AAMI linked up with the bush, and the each club was recording increased level of sponsors and members for the new competition.
Things were going great, optimism was high and even minor cracks in the game, such as player payments and the Roosters salary cap scandal, things that just a few years ago would of put the game in ?crisis? mode again were moved through at a reasonably professional level. True they haven?t been sorted completely yet, and work is still to be done but there was no fears that it would turn fans away, in fact it saw interest in league start to rise even earlier in the year than usual.
Pre-season matches drew strong crowds, in many centres they actually sold out, junior league clubs throughout NSW and Queensland started drawing increased numbers of players earlier on in the year than previous years, and hunger for the start of the 2004 Telstra Premiership was high.
The NRL also then took steps to take further advantage of the situation, they invested heavily in the lower levels of the game, $2.9million in fact, knowing this would translate into greater support for the code, and also then secured a sponsorship deal with QANTASlink to take players to the bush.
The media got on board, and this only helped the code go from strength to strength, and then suddenly things turned frosty with the Bulldogs scandal.
Now don?t get me wrong, in no way shape or form am I suggesting in this case the Bulldogs have done something illegal, however it is just another example how League has been successfully able to shoot itself in the foot when things have been going great.
Anyone remember 1995? It was meant to be one of the biggest and best years ever for League, a new 20 team competition, record sponsorship, and television coverage for the competition had not only reached new levels in Australia, but also internationally, with Asian, African, North American and European nations all tuning into the sport for the first time.
Come April that year, however, we all remember what happened, with one of the most devastating incidents in the game ever occurring.
So what makes our game so unlucky? Why is it that we have such a great product, something which so many people watch passionately and keep coming back to watch despite what happens, but whenever we move to a point where we can take on the world, and put the sport in expansion mode we just find someway for a player, a club, an official or something with a connection from the sport to put us on the back foot again.
Of course our sport is not unique to such problems, but when it happens in League it seems to have a more negative effect. It is debatable that the greater interest in our code is a reason behind this, but when you look at AFL and Cricket, the problems generally are just linked to that individual or club rather than the whole sport.
Shane Warne?s SMS issues, Wayne Carey?s affairs, even the latest incident is more compared to St Kilda in the press rather than AFL as a whole, yet when we compare it to the Bulldogs most articles are about the effect on Rugby League and as a result there has been problems for the sport as a whole. Parents and Teacher groups have questioned why should League be part of school curriculum, and sponsors have pulled out interest in the game in more areas than just at the Canterbury club.
Our biggest evil seems to be ourselves, and yet we just can?t seem to find out ways to solve the problem. We have moved to become more professional, to better promote ourselves and to try and clean up the image of the game, still we haven?t even come close to mastering damage control.
Maybe the solution is simple, we just need to revert back to 12 players like we trialed with in 1897? We didn?t seem to have the same bad luck then?..Maybe however it is just part and parcel of being the ?Greatest game of all?.
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