Carting it up with Stevo

Owners need to tow the line.

Season 2006 has kicked off and it?s worth reflecting on what has been a busy off season. One of the lasting controversies has been the issue of team ownership. For most of us ownership is a fickle concept. Anyone with money (or a decent credit rating) can buy a car, but ownership is useless without a licence. Lose your licence and your vehicle might as well be scrap metal. As untouchable as we felt when we bought our first cars, most of us have learnt that we are all answerable for our actions. That is unless we own a Rugby League team.

Much like player managers were in the ?90s, team owners are the new untouchables of the NRL, enjoying this freedom because they are answerable to no-one but themselves. While players, officials and even David Gallop has a boss or bosses, owners by definition run their own race. And it?s this freedom that is making fans and administrators of other codes nervous.

A classic example of this is being played out at Manchester United this season. When new team owner Malcolm Glazier bought a majority share in the English Premier League club, fans became concerned that he would move the team away from their spiritual home of Old Trafford. While rumours of Glaziers planned move were false, the thought that the new owner could move the team on a moments notice has made the Red Devil?s fanbase uneasy. Man U fans now spend more time fighting the intentions of their team owner (through movements such as ?Stop Malcolm Glazier?) than barracking for their football team.

The untold power of team owners was undoubtedly considered when the NRL handed out punishment to the Warriors for salary cap breaches. During the numerous interviews David Gallop conducted following the announcement, the NRL chief was careful not to tread on the toes of Warriors majority owner Eric Watson. And with good reason, Watson has made a significant financial investment in Rugby League over many years. Gallop understands if the Kiwi millionaire feels like he has been treated unjustly he has every right to take his money elsewhere, or even declare the Warriors bankrupt (as we have seen previous Warriors owners do).

This is the modern day challenge for Rugby League administrators: maintaining a balance between the interests of private investors in the game and ensuring the integrity of the competition is maintained.

It is ironic that, as South?s members vote for or against privitisation on Sunday, their ownership model could answer the NRL difficulties. Thanks to determined members, Peter Holmes a Court?s proposal has been adjusted to include several non- negotiable guarantees that must be adhered to by the new owners. Such guarantees could form the basis for the NRL to establish a team?s owners register. Registration could involve provisions ensuring any changes to team colours, playing venues and mascots are under the control of members. These provisions could even be decided by each individual clubs fanbase through a ballot. This would also provide an opportunity for the NRL to include negotiated criteria as to how owners are answerable and punishable if their club breaches NRL laws.

Private investors are now accustomed to regulation. By far the majority of industries are regulated in some way, and major shareholders understand they are answerable if something goes awry. In the NRL, such regulation would ensure investors would think twice about any underhand dealings, or at least ensure their staff aren?t tempted to bend the laws.

But the greatest benefit this form of regulation would provide for the NRL is that it would weed out any investors with questionable intentions. Just like on the field, Rugby League needs it?s money men to be first class.