Off the Wall

The "State of the Game" report issued by the NRL this week contained some good news, some rather modest news, and in one area, not much news at all.

I ignore the total/average crowd numbers - because some of the published attendances (especially at major stadiums) simply defy credibility. That makes the overall small "official" drop a concern!

The television numbers are excellent, especially on pay television. Seventy four of the top one hundred programmes on pay television were NRL/ARL matches.

Forget the stories about all games being on free to air television post 2012. That won't happen - pay television needs the NRL, and there is no way free to air channels will offer to broadcast all NRL matches live....and pay the billion dollars or more that the NRL would demand.

So the overall television story is good - and significantly better than that of the AFL.

Club membership is up - and that is welcome.

The NRL claims that "participation" is up.

That is also welcome, but I continue to worry about the state of the game at the true grassroots - in growing outer suburbs, and in regional and country towns.

A few years ago I did a survey on the number of regional city and country town clubs that had folded. The results were alarming.....dozens of clubs in rugby league heartland had folded completely.

I would not be surprised if the position has not improved. In some areas it may have even worsened.
The reports I hear about the state of the game in the outer suburbs of Sydney and Brisbane, and major regional areas such as Newcastle, the Illawarra, and the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, are mixed.

Some areas are growing in player, team and club numbers. Some are in decline.

It is too early to assess the impact on Western Sydney and the Gold Coast as a result of the millions the AFL is tipping into junior and school programmes in those areas. But the incentives the AFL is offering - free player registration/insurance etc - are a challenge for rugby league.

The Independent Commission must surely focus on this challenge, and the state of the game in regional and country areas, and guarantee that some of the added funding from television goes into regional and country rugby league.

There is one issue the report overlooks - and that is the challenge the game, and sport generally, faces from the push by the Independent MP, Andrew Wilkie, for controls over poker machines.

And the crisis this will cause has actually already begun!

The Canberra Raiders this week lost the funding the club has been receiving from the CFMEU/Tradies Club.

According to today's Telegraph, ten NRL clubs have indicated they will lose significant funding from their licensed clubs if the Wilkie agenda is implemented.

It is as simple as this - the Wilkie plan requires the costly installation of mandatory pre-commitment measures on all poker machines, and then revenue from machines will fall when the measures are in place!

Some licensed clubs aligned with NRL clubs may even close.

The IC should be in place NOW to deal with this challenge - it is the greatest financial threat to the viability of the game in its history!

In summary, the generally positive position outlined in the "State of the Game" report must be balanced against uncertainty about its true state at the grass roots - and the undisputed threat the Wilkie plan presents.

This is not a time for the NRL to rest on its laurels!