John Grant's legacy: More money, less fighting
At John Grant's first meeting with the 16 NRL clubs before the formation of the ARL Commission they asked for $500,000 each and their demands for funding have been a constant theme of his six-and-a-half-year tenure as chairman.
In fact, Grant estimates up to a third of the people running the game's time has had to be devoted to negotiating with clubs over money.
However, as he prepares to hand over the reins of the ARLC to former Queensland premier Peter Beattie at Wednesday's AGM, Grant predicts the commission will no longer be weighed down by such issues after the finalisation of new financial deals with broadcasters, clubs and players.
"The conversation about money started before the commission was formed and it has been a continuous discussion for five years," Grant said of the first meeting between the eight ARLC commissioners in waiting and the clubs at the NRL's former headquarters in late 2011.
"I reckon we have spent at least 30 per cent of Commission and [NRL] management time on the funding of clubs. We have done it to death but that 30 per cent won't be there next time.
"It is done and the air that has cleared has been dramatic so that 30 per cent of time can be applied quite differently now."
The deals – a new $1.8 billion broadcast agreements from 2018-2022, the collective bargaining agreement with the players and annual club grants worth $3 million more than the salary cap or about $65m per club over the next five years – can be viewed as Grant's legacy to the game.
Under his leadership, the game has grown from a $181m business in 2012 to one forecast to generate average revenue of $497m per year between 2018 and 2022.
Grant has also overseen a lot of other major changes to the game during his time as ARLC chairman that he is proud of, including:
- Rule changes to speed up the game and make it more appealing to a wider audience;
- Putting an end to gratuitous violence through bans on punching and the shoulder charge;
- The formation of the NRL Integrity Unit
- Securing a $2.3 billion commitment from the NSW Government funding to new stadia in Sydney, and;
- The establishment of NRL Digital.
To fully appreciate the significance of the change under Grant's leadership, you must consider how the game was before the ARLC gained control from News Ltd and the Australian Rugby League at the start of the 2012 season.
Broadcast revenue from 2008 to 2012 was worth $500m but after that doubled to $1.025b during the term of the next deal [2013-17] negotiated by the ARLC team, led by acting CEO Shane Mattiske, Grant and fellow commissioners Ian Elliott, Graeme Samuel and Jeremy Sutcliffe.
The latest broadcast deal, which begins this year and runs to the end of the 2022 season, is valued at $1.9b.
"The biggest thing about the first rights deal we did was getting rid of the first and last rights [clause] that Channel Nine and News had over our rights until 2027," Grant said.
"All that does is suppress value, and there is no question that for the three rights periods subsequent to Super League  and prior to the formation of the commission, we were underpaid for our rights."
In 2012, clubs received an annual grant worth $400,000 less than the $4.4m salary cap for player payments, whereas this season the grant from the ARLC is valued at $3m more than the $9.4m salary cap.
There is also $5.7m cap on football department spending to protect clubs from themselves after combined losses of $45m in 2015 and $56m in 2016.
"It's unsustainable so we had to correct that and the clubs have to take responsibility as well," Grant said.
"They are getting money but they are also accepting responsibility not to over spend on their football departments. It was an arms race and no one can survive that so the quid pro quo for getting the money is that they run their businesses well."
Players saw no significant growth in their pay from 1998, when the salary cap was $3.25m, until 2013 but will now receive $980m – or 29.5 per cent of forecast game revenue – over the next five years under their new CBA.
In addition, there are incentives for the players to help promote the game and a greater commitment to supporting integrity issues.
"Not only is it great money for the players but the way the CBA has been constructed really given a strong lever to goodness going forward," Grant said.
"There will still be indiscretions but the way the players can contribute to the growing the value of the game is substantial and they get a return on it."
With attendances at games "plateauing" in recent seasons, particularly in Sydney, the ARLC has worked closely with clubs and the NSW Government to secure $2.3b funding for new and improved stadiums at Parramatta, Homebush and Moore Park.
"The work we did around Sydney stadia … we were the only one to do a detailed analysis, we developed our view of what should happen based on data, we gave that to the government and then went through the process of convincing them," Grant said.
"To have three stadiums in that network is fantastic. The only longer range thing that will have to be dealt with is far western Sydney, near Penrith but these are big things that will have an impact for a very long time."
State of Origin and the NRL grand final provided four of Australia's six most watched television shows in 2017 and ratings figures for the game have increased in the past six years but digital is where growth is booming.
The NRL's following of 2.4 million on social media is the biggest in Australian sport and subscriptions for the Telstra NRL app surpassed 500,000 last year after a 350% increase.
Under the new broadcast agreements, the NRL has taken back responsibility for the game's digital presence from Telstra and in December launched the new NRL.com along with websites and apps for all 16 clubs and the state leagues.
"This game has to be strong in digital," Grant said. "2023 is a bit unknown at the moment so you have to create forward options and digital gives us forward options."There have been some concerns from our media partners about us being competitive but our intent is to work collaboratively with them.
"We need our partners but we also need our own voice. We need to be a trusted source for our fans so they can count on us to give them the right information."
Since 2012, the NRL has restructured the finals format, reduced the interchange, introduced the Bunker, new head injury assessment processes, the shot clock, a seventh tackle for in-goal kicks and taps for 40/20 kicks, created an integrity unit and cracked down on punching, shoulder charges, lifting and "cannon-ball" tackles.
"There is a bunch of rules that have made the game more attractive and made it more continuous and then there is another bunch of rules that have taken away the gratuitous violence," Grant said.
"In my view, that stopped when Paul Gallen whacked Nate Myles on the chin twice in State of Origin and [former NRL CEO] Dave Smith banned the punch.
"If Dave did anything significant for this game, it was that because it changed the culture of the game on the field dramatically."
The appointment of Smith - a Welsh banker with no background in the game, who Grant later described as a "change agent" - was one of the most controversial decisions made by the ARLC and led to criticism of the commissioners for their lack of rugby league knowledge.
However, Grant said the only shortcoming of the eight commissioners was their lack of understanding of rugby league politics.
"I think we paid a price for that but that is a small weakness in the scheme of things," he said. "I think that the thing we have to be proud of as a Commission, albeit that the road was rocky, is that we have done a really good deal for rugby league.
"We've navigated our way through probably the most difficult period and given everything that has been resolved in this period, going forward looks really positive."