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Kevin McCullagh | The Australian business is a contact sport

There was a distinctively Australian headline in the Sydney Morning Herald’s sports business coverage recently: “Peter V’Landys is becoming as pleasant as a nasal swab for AFL”.

The bracing language and source material were characteristic of what is one of the most interesting and intense media environments surrounding a sports industry anywhere in the world.

V’Landys chairs the Australian Rugby League Commission, which oversees the NRL. He has been jousting in the media with figures from the Australian Football League, who have criticised his ambitious restart plan for rugby league. ‘Nasal swab’ was a reference to the unpleasant method of testing for Covid-19.

Eddie McGuire, president of AFL team the Collingwood Magpies had said: “The AFL wants to show social leadership, they don’t want to be out like the NRL spruiking [an Australianism, meaning promoting or publicising] different ideas, we’re going to be model citizens.”

Led by V’Landys, the NRL has been champing at the bit to get back into action. Even before the UFC’s Dana White had a similar idea, the rugby league competition was reported to be considering relocating en masse to a tropical island in an attempt to restart. V’Landys invited opprobrium earlier in the Covid-19 outbreak for suggesting, as the virus was taking hold, that the NRL deserved a government bail-out.

The outspoken ARLC chair was having none of McGuire’s criticism. “Those people (within the AFL) should really have been concentrating on their own business and their own activities without making ill-informed comments about something they know nothing about,” he told the Herald Sun.

There is more than an echo today of the abrasive, aggressive approach of legendary mogul Kerry Packer as he leveraged sport to build his Australian media empire from the 1970s through to the 1990s. Representatives of major players in the sports and media industries aren’t averse to tearing strips off one another in on-the-record interviews.

Elsewhere, sports media-rights negotiations are reported blow-by-blow in the national newspapers. Speculation abounds about the commercial fortunes of the major codes and teams. Political manoeuvres in sport’s corridors of power are laid bare.

Another major recent story in the market was the departure of Peter Wiggs as board director of Rugby Australia, after little more than a month in the role. The Australian carried a detailed report of an RA board meeting conducted on Zoom that presaged Wiggs’ departure. His colleagues rejected his demands for a pick of a chief executive and one other board member, in what seems to have been the fatal blow to his short tenure.

Not all of Australia’s sports organisations or executives engage readily with the media, of course. The Australian Football League’s central commercial organisation is one example, largely shunning publicity.

But, by and large, sports business media coverage and executive conduct in the rest of the world seems staid by comparison, except perhaps in the colourful world of fight sports. And I am sure most executives prefer it that way.

With no regular sport to cover, sports business coverage has ratcheted up recently. As one Australian market observer put it to me recently, “There are 35 NRL journalists in Sydney with nothing else to write about”. The financial and organisational strain being placed on sports organisations and their broadcast partners is creating plenty of off-pitch action. And lots of it will be as energetically covered as the on-field stuff usually is. Australian sports industry-watchers could be in for a season of compelling content.

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