Off the Wall

The best news to come out of yesterday's meeting between the NRL referees director and club coaches was that there was not much news at all!

The fact that the interpretation of the laws of the game is only being subject to minor adjustment - mainly to deal with offside players chasing down kick receivers - is to be welcomed.

And I notice David Gallop used the line that the "product" is in good shape. May we hear more of that!

When it comes to the long term future of the game, this year is going to be a vital one.

How the game fares in 2010 - on and off the field - will be set the scene for the free to air and pay television negotiations likely to be concluded within a year or so from now.

Last year was a good one for the game in just about every area with the exception of off field behaviour.

But that will amount to nothing if the television ratings - free to air and pay - and attendances don't hold up in 2010.

The next television rights deal should deliver a substantial increase in the total value of the package. But it won't be easy to negotiate that. Times are tougher for the free to air television sector than they were when the current agreement was negotiated - and there are threats to advertising revenue in areas such as alcohol and "junk food" advertising.

The other challenge is that the AFL will conclude it next agreement this year. It is after an ambitious increase in the take from its commercial television partners. There is good and bad in that for rugby league - if it gets what it is seeking (around $1 billion) then our case has to be stronger - given the excellent aggregate television ratings from last season.

But it also means the financial pool the television industry - and the advertisers it relies on - will be under pressure. That is the downside for rugby league as a result of the timetable which puts the AFL agreement negotiations ahead of that of the NRL.

But the biggest challenge in the run up to the new deal relates to the game's overall image...and that is increasingly driven by off field behaviour issues involving players.

The AFL will today be very unhappy that a high profile premiership player is facing serious drugs charges. That will drag on throughout the 2010 season - and if you are concerned at how the media highlights NRL off field player issues, just have a look at today's Melbourne media!

I have a suggestion for David Gallop. He needs to send out a "Dear Player" letter to every NRL registered player. And it does not need to be a long letter.

It could be as straightforward as this:

"This is a vital year for the NRL and our game generally. We need to build on the excellent support we received from league fans in 2009, and our sponsors, as we prepare for the negotiation of the next television rights agreement. You can assist the game, your own club, and your own future, by ensuring your off-field behaviour at all times meets the standards that are expected of you, and all our players.

I appreciate that players want to see an expansion of the salary cap. That simply won't be possible if we don't secure a television agreement that reflects the value of our great product.

That value will be determined by a range of factors, some beyond our control. What is within our control is to ensure that the image of the game off the field is as strong and positive as it is on the field.

You assistance in ensuring both are stronger than ever in 2010 would be appreciated".

The argument that off field issues, and the attendant bad publicity, is not relevant when it comes to what broadcasters, and sponsors, will pay to be associated with the game is simply not sustainable.

The television networks cannot bid what rugby league wants, and deserves, unless they are confident major advertisers will back them.

A great "product" is a great start - but it needs a wholesome off field imagine as well. And that is where the players have all the cards!