NRL CEO Todd Greenberg believes off-field incidents are at an all-time low as a result of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement in which players receive a share of any increased revenue coming into the game.
In a sign of how few off-field incidents there have been, the most controversial issues of 2018 have been the refereeing crackdown on incorrect play-the-balls and defenders being offside, and Sam Burgess’s suspension for an illegal fend on Josh Morris.
Crowds are up, televisions ratings are up, player participation numbers are up – and player misbehaviour is significantly down, with the only off-field incidents of note to have occurred this year involves assault allegations against Canberra fullback Jack Wighton.
"You know rugby league is back to normal when we are talking about referees and judiciary decisions," Greenberg told NRL.com in a wide-ranging interview in which he also discussed:
- The early-season penalty blitz;
- A Magic Weekend;
- Playing games in the bush;
- The women’s competition;
- Kicking off 2019 in the USA;
- The international game;
- Changes to the broadcasting landscape; and
- Israel Folau's possible return to the NRL.
"We probably had the best off-season I can remember in my time in the game and I think that is the by-product of a number of things," Greenberg said. "The integrity unit has better processes and systems to be proactive rather than reactive.
"I also think it is an outcome of the collective bargaining agreement we did with the players, which says they have got skin in the game on revenue and they are partners.
"People are realising that those sort of issues have a material impact on the brand of the game in that they potentially take value off the table and anyone who works in the game doesn’t want to see that happen. I think the players deserve huge credit for that."
Now Greenberg wants the players, and everyone else involved in the game, to start talking it up in a bid to broaden its appeal and attract greater support from corporates and the big end of town.
It's the continuation of a campaign he began after criticism of refereeing decisions against Manly and Cronulla during last year’s finals by declaring: "It's time for the game to grow up."
Greenberg insists he wasn't talking directly to rival Sea Eagles and Sharks coaches Trent Barrett and Shane Flanagan, at the time and his recent #NRLtalkthegameup campaign on Twitter after criticism of high penalty counts weren't aimed at the media or specific journalists.
"I stand by that comment that the game does need to grow up – and that's everybody," he said. "It's me, it's the boards of clubs, it's the commissioners, it's our players, our coaches, our fans … we have all got a duty to consider the game more broadly before we just jump into social media or commentary.
"What I think we can do better as a game is for us to all collectively tell more of the positive stories of what we do and what the players do, and for the coaches to continue to talk the game up.
"I am not talking to individual journalists to talk the game up … their job is to find interesting stories or angles that will sell their newspapers. I get that. My message was to the whole of the game and particularly to people who work inside it and play inside it – participants, players, boards, officials, coaches – for them to talk the game up.
"If they do that the media and the coverage of the game will be positive."
After finalising the CBA with players, a new funding agreement guaranteeing clubs an annual grant worth $3 million per year more than the salary cap, the start of a $1.8 billion five-year broadcast deal and changes to the ARL Commission chaired by Peter Beattie, he insists the NRL has never been in better shape.
The backlash against increased penalties was anticipated after a meeting of the competition committee at the of last season decided the ruck needed to be cleaned up and wanted referees to be stronger in policing the play-the-ball.
Referees attended training sessions and scrimmages with every club during the off-season but players took advantage of the slower ruck speed by creeping offside. Criticism peaked after 33 penalties were awarded in the Sharks-Storm round-four match but infringements have since decreased.
"We said to the referees that people will think you will only do this for the first 10 rounds. Our goal is to make sure we stick to it and we stay strong to our principles despite whatever criticism comes our way," Greenberg said.
"The last two rounds have seen penalties start to drop off gradually and that is primarily because players are now doing what they need to do."
New teams wanting to join the Telstra Premiership will need to prove their viability by playing in one of the state-based second-tier competitions. That includes Perth.
"Everyone thinks that expansion is all about the NRL comp, the reality is we need to consider what expansion looks like at the second-tier level before we even look at the NRL," Greenberg said.
"We now have both states [NSW and Queensland] running competitions where they have Intrust Super teams, under 20s teams, under 18s and under 16s teams. That’s really where expansion is in the short-to-medium term.
"I think Perth has the opportunity to consider how they have a pathway that fits into one of those state leagues. That is the discussion we will have to have with Perth, and Victoria more broadly, to continue to grow the footprint.
"Perth's participation base is growing every year so our challenge is to make sure that there is also an elite pathway and that is an investment we need to make in time."
Greenberg said the NRL was keen to stage a Magic Weekend next season, in which a full round of matches would be played at the same venue. A venue has not been finalised, although Suncorp Stadium and the new Parramatta Stadium would be likely options.
"It would give us an opportunity to celebrate the game in the most unique way with all 16 clubs in one location over the course of a weekend, it would be a real milestone moment in our schedule," he said.
"I think it would be fantastic for our fans and I think players would really enjoy it so we are working hard on that."
Taking NRL games to NSW and Queensland country towns such as Tamworth and Toowoomba has been a huge success and Greenberg hopes there will be more matches in the bush next season.
"I copped some criticism when we took City-Country out of the schedule but I did say we would play more games in the bush and this year we will play a record number of games in the bush and I hope next year we can beat that again," Greenberg said.
"It is not just about the game, it is about the experience of kids seeing the stars, the days before and the impact they leave on that community, the infrastructure that community can justify by getting a game there, there are so many benefits that are important for us."
There is also the possibility of an Intrust Super Premiership team being based in a regional centre at some stage, with a number of areas having partnered with NRL clubs to field teams in NSW under 18s and under 16s country competitions.
"We put more than $1 million into that program, so kids in the country can have opportunities to play elite rugby league and stay in their hometowns for as long as possible," he said.
"The next step is to see if we can find a way for those kids in under 16s and 18s in rural areas of NSW to come into an under 20s system in that market, and one day maybe have an Intrust Super Cup side there."
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The women's game
A significant milestone for the game this season is the inaugural NRL Women’s Holden Premiership but there has been criticism that the competition will start with just four teams.
Melbourne and Canterbury have indicated they will seek licences to join in 2019, while South Sydney and Cronulla are expected to apply again.
"That has copped some criticism, rightfully and expectedly so, but we need to be cautious that when those teams run out our female players are well prepared and the contest is something fans really want to engage in," Greenberg said.
"Rugby league has a unique element to it - tackle technique. The way the game is played, the collision of the sport, that needs to be all considered when you put it in an elite environment.
"We didn't want too many teams in the first year or two because we want to make sure that when those teams run out people see a high-quality contest on the field and that means having our best players play at the elite level.
"The aspirational component for young girls to watch their stars play this year on free to air television and align with double-headers in the finals series at the best time of the year in September will be unbelievable and I hope it sees an explosion of young girls wanting to play the sport, whether it is tackle or tag or touch."
Taking a match to the USA
The NRL is continuing talks with Channel Nine and Fox Sports to play the opening match of the 2019 season in the United States.
South Sydney and Parramatta instigated discussions and would be expected to be among the clubs considered to play the match.
"We have been actively working behind the scenes with both broadcasters about the ability to play a game to open the season in what will be called Round Zero, which would be the week before Round One to allow for travel time," Greenberg said.
"Again, that has a myriad of challenges in regard to our agreements with broadcasters and making sure we bring it back in the right time zone but again we are confident we can make that happen next year too."
The international game
The NRL has been criticised for not supporting the New Zealand-England Test in Denver on June 23 but Greenberg said scheduling was the only issue and clubs realise the opportunities in the USA.
"We are very supportive of international rugby league and we are very supportive of Test matches being played in the United States because we see opportunities to grow the game," he said. "What we are concerned about is the scheduling of that game at that part of the season.
"The reality is that our draw was done and the teams playing in those rounds was all decided before that was put on the table and we had no ability to influence the outcome of that. That is the thing that has frustrated the 16 clubs the most.
"But the principle is that all 16 clubs think that international rugby league has the ability to grow the game. We all agree on that. What we don’t want to do is take value out of the NRL premiership so we need to find ways where international football adds value."
Greenberg pointed to the Pacific Test as evidence of the NRL’s support of the international game.
"People talk at length and rightfully so about well the Pacific nations played in last year’s World Cup," he said. "The reality is that we have been scheduling and overseeing and underwriting Pacific Test matches for a number of years to get to the stage where those teams were more competitive than they have ever been and better followed with greater support bases."
Channel Seven's securing of the cricket rights from Channel Nine, which now has the Australian Open tennis, is indicative of the changing media landscape and while the NRL is in the first year of a five-year broadcast deal, Greenberg admitted the future was uncertain.
"We are watching with great interest in this landscape and I talk to all of my counterparts in all the other sports," he said.
"I think we are in an era of enormous change and we are in an era where, particularly, the next generation have greater choice than ever before in how they consume and digest their content, particularly their sport, so we have to be cognisant of what we do next with our broadcast rights.
"We have got a long way to go before we have to renew that but there is no doubt the offerings will be different, there is no doubt the requirements will be different."
The former Storm and Broncos star is off contract with Rugby Australia and has again been linked with a return to the NRL.
However, his anti-gay comments on social media would appear to be at odds with the NRL’s policy of inclusiveness, which was highlighted by Macklemore’s appearance at last season’s grand final at the height of the same-sex marriage debate.
"There would be some discussions had with Israel at the right time if and when we needed to have them," Greenberg said.
"Those discussions we would have behind closed doors and I would have them privately. But being inclusive is also about everyone having their opportunity to have a say and that is important as well."