Off the Wall

Yesterday the nation's leading media "buyer", Harold Mitchell, cast serious doubt over whether rugby league will get what it wants, and expects, out of its broadcast rights negotiations.

And he was significantly more confident the AFL will get close to the $1 billion it is seeking.

Mitchell is a Victorian but his views need to be respected - he made his fortune doing deals with the major television networks on behalf of national advertisers.

He has always been regarded as close to the Packer family so it was not a surprise he declined to be critical of the re-entry of James Packer into the free to air television market.

But Roy Masters, who is an astute observer of the "politics" of the media and major sports, did not hold back in the "Sydney Morning Herald" on Saturday.

His argument is a fairly straight forward one - the move by James Packer to become a key shareholder in the Ten network is bad news for the AFL, and arguably even worse news for the NRL.

Rugby league won't get anywhere near $1 billion for a five year agreement if it cannot share the rights between more than one free to air channel.

The obvious new bidder is the Ten network - because getting rugby league onto its successful One HD channel will boost its ratings and revenue.

James Packer already has a substantial stake in a couple of very lucrative media assets - Foxtel and Fox Sports.

If Ten brought some of the NRL rights it would obviously show some games on One HD. That would lessen the need for viewers in Victoria and other non-league states to sign up to pay television.

Putting rugby league on digital television, which is now available in something like 70 per cent of households free of charge, will boost its viewer audience.

But the entry of Packer presents a problem. He has an overwhelming interest in "encouraging" league and AFL fans to sign up to Foxtel.

If fans in the non-league, and non-AFL, states can get games on digital, they will hardly be encouraged to pay to get games on Foxtel.

Roy Masters argues that Packer may well use his new influence at Ten to close down One HD. If that happened Ten would have almost no interest in bidding for the NRL rights.

Given the federal government's policy of encouraging digital television one hopes it would look seriously at any move by Packer to reduce, not increase, sport on digital television.

While Masters argument is straight forward, the whole question of free to air television v pay television is complex, and made even more so by the arrival, and growth, of digital channels. Nine and Seven have digital channels but only Ten's channel has a strong sports focus.

But let me try and summarise it this way.

Both the AFL and the NRL will stand a better chance of getting what they want if there is greater coverage of games on free to air television, and on digital television in particular.

The NRL desperately needs more than one network to bid for the NRL rights. Nine will bid again, but until recently Ten has also been seen as a serious contender. Seven has an interest, but probably more in State of Origin and Tests than the whole package. Its AFL commitment is a complication.

But Ten with a digital sports channel would not be so constrained. Unless Mr Packer and his friends give it the chop of course!

I hope the NRL is watching these developments - and watching them with concern.

James Packer may be on the Roosters board, but he is foremost a businessman.

And his business interests don't necessarily coincide with rugby league's best interests!