Phil Rothfield recently had an indepth discussion with Dave Smith, CEO of the NRL. Here are the parts relative to this website.
BUZZ: I’m glad the grand final was at ANZ. Under your plan for a 60,000 seater in Moore Park, 25,000 fans would have missed seeing the best grand final ever.
SMITH: What I’m convinced of is that the $1.6 billion that is to be invested by the government is really substantial and will create a network of stadiums. The geographic spread and the size of all the stadiums is what our game needs.
For traditional home and away games you have the right size venues and if it’s a big event you’ve got that option as well. We’ll put our big events, as you saw with the MCG this year, to different fan bases. Importantly we’ll use the right stadium for the right event.
BUZZ: But if you’re getting $1.6 billion from the government, how can you take a grand final away from ANZ?
SMITH: Look at Origin — every three years we have one in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. That make complete sense to me. Both NSW and Queensland get two games every three years but we’re still allowing the game to grow outside the traditional areas. You’ve got to be ambitious with expansion as well.
BUZZ: You’ve had a tough year. The TV deal, clubs blowing up, crowds down. The game really needed that great grand final.
SMITH: On the crowds we’ll end up about 2 per cent down.
BUZZ: They were the lowest for 10 years.
SMITH: You can look at the positives, too, like the biggest crowds ever for Origin and also the biggest ever for the finals series. It was phenomenal considering there wasn’t two big Sydney teams at the end. You look back at the weather and other things ….
BUZZ: But your strategic plan said crowds were going to grow. They are going backwards.
SMITH: For the last 20 years over the full season, it has been plus or minus 2 per cent. The average crowd has always been around 16,500. We have 300,000 members this year for the first time. We have a wider base of people watching the game. More women and girls.
When you build infrastructure that’s in the right place, like Melbourne or Adelaide, where they have these bigger crowds, we’ll get more people to the games. No one wants to be stuck in a car park for two hours. We’re going to get stadiums with the facilities our fans deserve. You’ll see the fan base build. We’ll get our 20,000 and 30,000 fans.
BUZZ: But you’ve got too many Sydney clubs. That’s why the crowds aren’t growing.
SMITH: Yes, they’ve been there a long time.
BUZZ: You’re going to have to make a tough call one day.
SMITH: What we’re doing with the clubs is working with them closely. It’s no secret the majority are not profitable. We’re looking at funding models now. The litmus test will be in about 10 years when we have the stadiums and the right funding.
BUZZ: Junior rugby league participation numbers are down too, which is disappointing. Again it was part of the strategic plan to grow the junior ranks, which you haven’t achieved.
SMITH: Yes, we need to do more with grassroots. We’ve really got to focus on it. Whether it be schoolboys or junior clubs, it’s got to be a big focus.
BUZZ: The TV rights deal does not look so good now. Where do you stand on it?
SMITH: On the contrary, we are in a very strong position. We deliberately went out to the market two-and-a-half years early so we could test the market properly.
We have already secured more than $900 million from the free-to-air rights — and that is nearly as much as the entire broadcasting rights from the current deal. That deal delivers fans four live and free games a week. And we still have the pay TV rights to come — with more than two years to come to an agreement with a provider.
BUZZ: How’s your relationship with the clubs? I notice they still haven’t signed their long-term participation agreements.
SMITH: We’ve got a really strong conversation going with the clubs at the moment. It’s been very constructive. I’ve addressed every single player in the competition. We’ve addressed every board and administration. There has been a very good alignment of thoughts. We’ve discussed all the broader issues. We’ve had chairmans meeting and CEO meetings.
BUZZ: But they haven’t signed their participation agreements yet.
SMITH: We’re talking to the clubs about the right terms. It’s all a work in progress. There’s no conflict or a major confrontation. Together we all want to set the game for the future. We have to recognise our differences but increasingly work together. Everything is going in the right direction. Some of this has been misreported.
BUZZ: Misreported? I don’t believe that’s the case.
SMITH: OK, that’s the wrong word. There has been much more constructive dialogue than what hasn’t been reported.
BUZZ: You’ve got a crystal ball — look ahead 10 years. How many teams will we have and where will we be playing out of?
SMITH: In 10 years time I reckon we’ll have 18 teams. I think we’ll have a strong regional footprint, Pacific Islands in a second tier competition. We’ll have a very strong world club challenge. Instead of 5.8 million fans I think we’ll have eight million that are watching the game. Queensland is definitely worthy of another team and possibly Perth or New Zealand but you can’t do any of this until the 16 teams are strong.