What’s really behind the fight between the NRL and News Corp

There are two sayings, often quoted by the late supercoach Jack Gibson, that perfectly capture the relationship between footy clubs and the media.

“Nobody ever lost a match sitting in the press box,” it could be argued.

“You want better stories?” a reporter might ask an angry coach, official or even a fan if the tone of the coverage is considered too negative. “Win more matches.”

I suspect the fans could not give a flying fig about the relationship between the NRL and the media, but the issue has suddenly become a hot topic because of NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg’s plea to #talkupthegame.

Greenberg’s seemingly innocent hashtag campaign has mobilised News Corp reporters and columnists, specifically from The Daily Telegraph, to escalate their attack on the NRL to DEFCON-1.

This is the real story most fans and readers probably don’t know: News Corp and the NRL have been going toe-to-toe with each other for the best part of a year over the NRL’s $150 million spend on a new digital arm.

News, which also owns subscription TV broadcaster Fox Sports, considers the move to be an encroachment on their standing as the apparent voice of the game. The NRL argues it has every right to set up its own media service, just like the AFL. Which, of course, it does.

Free-to-air broadcaster Channel Nine also expressed its dissatisfaction last year about the NRL’s beefed up digital arm but it hasn’t been anywhere near as cranky as News.

There was a series of meetings between Greenberg and News executives all last year. They were still arguing a few weeks ago when Greenberg met with News Corp Australia executive chairman Michael Miller. Miller was apparently insistent that NRL.com should be about stats and the draw and player profiles. In other words, not a robust competitor to the Tele.

The message about NRL.com at Monday’s commission meeting was positive. While head office guards its figures about these sort of things quite closely, it’s believed the website’s audience is up 15 per cent compared to last year. Given the massive spend, the numbers would want to be on the up.

There are many at the NRL who believe the torrid attack on Greenberg from News in recent months is the media giant’s direct response to its new digital strategy.

It walked away as half owners so the independent commission could be formed in 2012 but now wants to wrap its tentacles around rugby league once more.

The NRL is still prepared on some days to get pushed around like the smallest kid in the playground, much like a lot of its clubs. Last month’s announcement about the NRL striking a deal with the Victorian government to host two Origins and two Test matches over the next eight years in exchange for a $12 million centre of excellence was leaked to News Corp.

The NRL says it was the Victorian government’s idea, but Greenberg or whoever was responsible should’ve played hardball and explained that News had been punching him and the game in the head for months, so how about we just hold a press conference?

The peacemaker in all of this could be new commissioner Peter V’landys, the Racing NSW chief executive who is often described as someone who would “prefer a fight than a feed”.

Monday’s commission meeting was only V’landys’ second, but he’s already getting his hands dirty.

It’s been suggested that V’landys has eyes on Greenberg’s office. He’d certainly do a good job but there’s already a prevailing feeling across the game he will have Peter Beattie’s chairmanship sooner than later.

That would certainly appease News Corp, which has a very strong relationship with the racing administrator, who has signed off on multi-million dollar contracts to promote his sport in its newspapers. (For the record, Fairfax Media also has a commercial relationship with Racing NSW, but for a smaller amount).

As this column has written before, V’landys won’t be sitting on the commission so he can stand on a post-match stage. He won’t be standing in front of cameras. He doesn’t tweet.

What he will do is ruthlessly cut spending where needed. He’d prefer NRL executives to use Opal cards instead of corporate cards.

Peacemaker? ARL commissioner Peter V'Landys .

Peacemaker? ARL commissioner Peter V’Landys .

What’s interesting is that he’s already voiced many concerns about the profitability of NRL Digital and its ability to wash its face.

In the meantime, the battle between News and the NRL shows no sign of abating. Pass the popcorn.

Greenberg first mooted the #talkupthegame campaign in an interview with Fairfax Media last month, although he hadn’t added a hashtag to it then.

He wasn’t calling on the media to talk up the game.

“The game is too good and matters to so many people,” he said. “So as players, officials and coaches when you get the chance, talk the game up.”

The role of the media, whether its sport or politics or any round, isn’t to talk up the game. It’s to report, analyse, comment. We’re reporters, not cheerleaders. (Could you imagine Roy Masters holding pom-poms? Yes, so can I).

Those aggressive Telegraph reporters and columnists thundering away at Greenberg are like many in the rugby league media who see some real issues that need addressing, along with the great stories, too.

We see the bravery of Eels hooker Kaysa Pritchard whacking blokes double his size, but also the gibberish of what’s happening at Manly.

And we see a game that should be run better than it is because most of us who cover the game also love the game. We want the best for the game. It’s true: nobody ever ran rugby league from a press box.

But if the NRL wants better stories it should run the game better than it is.

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