Off the Wall

If anyone doubts that rugby league must have a single administration to meet the challenges of the future then they should take the time to read the extensive article on the television rights issue in today's "Financial Review".

The AFL is about to get down to the serious business of negotiating its next television rights deal with the commercial television channels. Details of what it is going to put forward are in the article - and it contains some sobering news for the greatest game of all.

The current AFL agreement, which ends in 2011, is worth something like $780 million over five years. The current AFL/NRL agreement, which runs until 2012, is worth just over $500 million.

The AFL is proposing a free to air/cable television deal that is worth around $1 billion over five years. It will negotiate this week with Seven and Ten, its current rights holders, and Nine.

Therein lies the problem for rugby league. By the time the rugby league gets around to holding discussions over its next rights deal - starting a year after the AFL's - it is highly likely that the field will be effectively a one horse race.

That is how it was last time. And look at the result? Rugby league secured a significantly inferior deal because Kerry Packer - in his dying days - made sure that Ten and Seven would pay over the odds for the rights to the AFL if he could not have them.

By the time it came around to negotiate the rights for rugby league Nine effectively has the race to itself. Sadly, history is about to repeat itself I fear.

The AFL knows that it is a tough ask to not only maintain what was a very good deal, but to actually improve on it. That is why the AFL is using some of the substantial reserves the current deal has allowed it to build up to fund the expansion into Western Sydney and the Gold Coast.

In the process, it will not only increase its viewing audience it will also expand its premiership rounds from 22 to 24.

Rugby league's expansion plans are up in the air. The priority is to encourage teams to re-locate, which may be good for the bottom line for one or two struggling clubs, but does not match the AFL's increased audience.

The NRL can only watch from the sidelines as the AFL tries to negotiate a new deal. Its best hope has to be that talks with either Seven or Ten will be unsuccessful, and that the AFL will end up like the NRL with a single free to air broadcaster. At least that would allow some competition for the rights for rugby league.

There is talk that the rights for rugby league will be "packaged" separately, with State of Origin and Test matches not being part of the NRL premiership broadcast agreements. But at the end of the day that won't make much difference to the bottom line...and not enough difference to significantly narrow the gap between the AFL rights and rugby league's.

But there is one step rugby league must take now.

It must end the unaffordable, and inefficient, way the game is administered.

The AFL is one body. Andrew Demetriou negotiates for the whole game - the ARL and the NRL share the negotiating rights for rugby league.

We surely need the same...and we need it now.