THEY are the superior rugby league athletes whose extraordinary football ability is matched by their ability to either connect with people through their engaging personalities or hypnotise them with their auras.
They are on the biggest contracts in the game, but they probably should be earning even more than they do already when you consider the influence they have not only on their team’s fortunes on the field, but also their club’s fortunes off it.
They are the money men – and it is a very exclusive club.
The members? Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis, Benji Marshall, Sonny Bill Williams and Melbourne’s ‘big three’ – Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk – are all admitted. There are a few others knocking on the door, but it takes a special player to get in.
Inglis, originally a sensational centre who has been transformed into a sensational fullback at South Sydney, last September extended his deal with the Rabbitohs until the end of 2017. Word is the deal will hit the $1 million per season mark at some point during that contract.
Rabbitohs chief executive Shane Richardson likens the value of ‘GI’ to his club and rugby league in general as similar to the value of Lionel Messi to Barcelona and football, or Peyton Manning to the Denver Broncos and NFL.
“His value is enormous,” Richardson says. “His appeal, when it comes to attracting fans and sponsorship to himself and the club, I’ve only seen before with Andrew Ettingshausen, when I was at Cronulla.
“There’s not a lot of difference between the $100,000 to $200,000 players, and even the $200,000 to $400,000 players, but the marquee players – they are something else.”
Sponsors of Inglis include Aboriginal Health, The Star casino and Asics. Richardson says while the playing ability of Inglis separates him from the vast majority of fellow footballers, his personality takes him that extra step off the field.
“He’s a really decent human being, and he’s got charisma,” says Richardson. “And that is on top of him being a once-in-a-generation athlete, so you can understand the appeal. He epitomises what this club stands for, which is its Indigenous past and present and the values associated with that.
“It’s hard to say exactly what each individual brings in terms of the attraction of sponsors to a club, and we have some other great players here who are all part of the jigsaw as well, but ‘GI’ is nothing but a positive in that department.”
There may not be a player in the history of the game who has been able to attract as many sponsors as Benji Marshall. The Wests Tigers five-eighth is said to earn at least $850,000 annually from his playing contract, which would include some third-party deals, but he also has many private backers.
Among those companies on the Benji bandwagon are Spartan sporting goods, Mambo, Channel Nine, Fairfax, Zanerobe clothing, Hyundai, Strategy One human resources and Asics.
Marshall’s manager Martin Tauber describes his appeal as “vast”, adding: “The kids absolutely love him, and he’s got a great following among adults – including the female market – as well.
“We are inundated with requests to have Benji associated with products and make appearances. Air New Zealand is another major sponsor of his. I’ve been on flights with him where the captain has announced Benji is on-board and the people have applauded.”
Asked what he believes makes Marshall so appealing, apart from his freakish football ability, Tauber replies: “I think it’s his humility, more than anything. People constantly approach him in public, and he always gives them time.
“Benji wants to give something back, which is why he started the Benji Marshall Foundation to support the victims of children’s cancer.”