Off the Wall

It may surprise some readers to know that the NRL does not decide the weekly fixture timetable for the NRL premiership.


The decision is basically made by Channel Nine. It has the first pick, the second pick, and then I think the fourth pick, of the matches it wants to show on Nine on Friday night, and then on replay on Sunday afternoon.


As a result, Nine is able to manipulate the timing of games to its perceived viewer audience advantage - and to exploit the two state popularity of the game.


As an example, on each of the four Friday nights so far this season, a Queensland based team has been scheduled. That allows Nine to maximise its viewer audience numbers in Queensland. The live match in Queensland is not necessarily the best match - as in theory it is supposed to be - but the one involving a Queensland team.


The same can be said for what New South Wales viewers are served up. Because teams like the Dragons, Eels and Bulldogs are regarded by Nine as drawing the highest viewing numbers NSW viewers have had the Dragons on all four Fridays so far, and the Eels on twice.


The Sea Eagles, premiers just two seasons ago, have not made a Friday night slot, as have the Wests Tigers, and the best the Storm could muster was Good Friday afternoon.


It now appears that the cosy position Nine enjoys is going to change come the new television rights agreement post 2012.


The NRL seems determined to follow the AFL's example and issue a whole of season schedule. If that happens, the NRL, not the free to air rights holder, or the pay television rights holder, will decide the weekly programming of fixtures.


There are risks in scheduling a season in advance, but there are also significant advantages. If clubs know months in advance exactly when their home games will be they will be able to market them more effectively, especially with members and sponsors.


A number of clubs are increasingly frustrated they get little or no free to air coverage - especially the live Friday night telecast - and that makes it harder to attract and retain club sponsors, and jersey and shorts sponsors.


The team really hard done by is clearly the Manly Sea Eagles. In the first eight rounds of the premiership the Sea Eagles won't get one Friday night match. Not one! And the same goes for the Panthers.


But it does not always favour Nine given that the scheduling is done six weeks or so in advance. In the first eight rounds, the Bulldogs have a Friday night game four times! The way they played last night Nine may well be regretting that call!


When the NRL eventually regains control of scheduling it is going to have to engage in a delicate balancing act. By then, the game will be almost certainly owned by the 16 clubs - and one can imagine the CEO's are going to demand a fair slice of Friday night football, and then Sunday afternoon football.


But a full season schedule - warts and all - has great advantages for clubs, and sponsors...and fans.


The sooner it happens the better!