NRL fails at its own 'Game Plan'

John Grant made some ambitious promises in the 2012 strategic plan.
GETTY IMAGES

John Grant made some ambitious promises in the 2012 strategic plan.

OPINION: This was John Grant's moment. Never one to shun the stage or spotlight, he took his seat, adjusted his tie and ran an eye over the room. 

It was late October 2012 and we had all squeezed our way into the media conference room at League Central. Apart from the usual gaggle of reporters, every commissioner was there. Most of the NRL executive was present too, except for a chief executive. David Gallop had been edged out the door months earlier and was yet to be replaced.

Over the next hour, Grant unveiled not just a flashy new NRL logo but the exciting strategic plan we'd all been waiting for; a blueprint that would allow rugby league to be "the most entertaining, most engaging and most respected sport".

Crowd sizes have not grown as much as the game's administrators hoped.
GETTY IMAGES

Crowd sizes have not grown as much as the game's administrators hoped.

It was called "The Game Plan" and the numbers spewing out of the projector and onto the big screen were impressive.

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Average crowds of more than 20,000! More than 400,000 in club memberships! Bigger ratings! More Instagram followers! More of everything!

These were the figures. The promises inside the document were even more grand.

It talked about "elite players being acknowledged as role models", about "improved game-day experiences", about "a new values-based national code of conduct emphasising sportsmanship and behaviour on and off the field".

All this was supposed to happen in the Year of Our Lord 2017.

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"This is not meant to be every man's answer to everything," Grant told this column in an interview after he'd stepped away from the podium.

A quick glance of the calendar reveals it is indeed 2017. Crunch some numbers and it's clear that Grant, the commission and the people he's put in place on salaries that would blow out most club salary caps has come up with less answers than we hoped.

Average crowds sit at around 15,000; club memberships at about 312,000; ratings have improved year-on-year but dipped this season compared to last; social media reach is half of what was expected.

Is rugby league dead? Buried? In crisis? No. It's just not the sparkly professional sport we all expected it to be by now.

Is Grant and the commission solely responsible for this? No, but if you're going to live by the power-point presentation, you die by the power-point presentation.

The bottom line is this: it could be doing better.

Right on cue, Grant put the heat back on the clubs when contacted on Monday for comment.

"There was no plan other than some flimsy financial numbers and some basic participation and attendance numbers," Grant said.

"We needed to get it out because you can't run a business without a plan. Those targets were aspirations. We needed aspirational targets for the game because there had been none. We needed to create momentum around what was possible.

"You're never where you want to be. That's the idea of targets, Andrew. But if you look across those targets, and if you want to attribute responsibility, the NRL is not responsible for all of those targets. Other parties are - eg. clubs."

He's talking about crowd figures here, which is hard to cop when the NRL is responsible for the absurd schedule that puts matches between arch rivals Dragons and Souths at the SCG at 6pm on a Friday instead of 3pm on a Sunday.

"That's a broadcasting thing, mate," Grant said.

Many fans are growing tired of this excuse. The last time I looked, it was the NRL's game. It doesn't belong to Fox Sports or Channel Nine.

Will that change?

"It is, from 2018," Grant said. "We take over control. Well, not complete control because at the end of the day they pay us a lot of money. The broadcasters fund this game to the tune of 65 per cent of overall revenue."

In fairness, the ARLC does have some reason to thump its chest.

It says its non-broadcast revenue has increased from A$77.6 million (according to its 2013 annual report) to A$144.2 million (2016 annual report). It anticipates that will grow to A$155.2 million by the end of this year.

Many within the club will counter this with the fact the NRL is asking for advances from its broadcasters from the next rights deal, and also going cap in hand to the banks for A$30 million loans, to make ends meet. The NRL will counter this by saying the clubs need more money because they spend it so poorly. The circle of life.

Grant angrily dismisses accusations that the fabled "A$200 million growth fund" has been squandered. He says it was never supposed to be a wad of cash stuffed under the bed for whoever needs it.

"We said we would make strategic investments of A$200m," Grant said.

"Between 2013 and 2017, $190m in cash from this growth fund was invested in clubs, grassroots facilities. [Grant did not provide any more detail around this]. We are forecasting $53m in cash reserve."

Player participation is always a rubbery figure, no matter the code. The NRL says 772,000 players participated in the game in 2016 from a combination of "programmes, events, school and registered club participation". That does not include the NRL's partnership with Touch Football Australia, which last year had participation figures of 694,420. Largely, the increase can be attributed to the rapid rise of the women's game.

According to the Australian Sports Commission's AusPlay study released last December, rugby league had 247,883 participants across junior and senior club competitions. The NRL disputes these numbers because it doesn't take into account school and other competitions.

Leaps and bounds have been made in other areas, such as career development for players and people engaged in community programs. Perhaps most importantly, it's smashing the AFL on social media. It has 1,413,857 followers on Facebook. We couldn't work out if that figure includes Jarryd Hayne's followers but it's a victory worth claiming. 

So, in other words, rugby league is doing OK ... Hardly a sexy headline, is it?

Perhaps what's most critical is what hasn't been achieved and to that end you need only look at one single line in Grant's strategic plan: "Putting the game ahead of individual needs".

Self-interest continues to strangle rugby league almost everywhere you look, and five years after declaring a new dawn for the game the outgoing chairman will leave next February having fallen into the same trap of so many others on so many fronts.

Not that he's buying that.

As Grant said on Monday: "As an aspirational plan for the game to start to focus its intent and resources and investment, based on the outcomes we should be really comfortable with the outcomes [sic]."

How can you argue with that?

 - Sydney Morning Herald

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