With rumours that Todd Greenberg’s contract may not be renewed beyond 2020, Phil “Gus” Gould has been one of the names suggested to replace him as NRL CEO.
While Gus said “That’s just not what I am; I’m not a CEO,” on his latest Six Tackles with Gus podcast (April 8, 2020), let’s play a hypothetical game and look and the pros and cons of Gus as the CEO.
His Experience in the Game
Starting in 1976, Gus played as a goal kicking second-rower for Penrith, Newtown, Canterbury-Bankstown, and South Sydney, finishing his career in 1986 with 104 games, 8 tries, 56 goals, and 2 field goals (142 points).
It was off the field where he really took off, coaching 287 NSWRL/ARL/NRL games for Canterbury (1988–89), Penrith (1990–94), and the Eastern Suburbs/Sydney City Roosters (1994–99), with 170 wins, 8 draws, and 109 losses. He won two premierships: one for the Bulldogs (1988) and one for the Panthers (1991), and he’s arguably New South Wales’ greatest Origin coach, with stints from 1992 to 1996, and 2002 to 2004, winning 14 games from 24 (series wins in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, 2003, 2004, and a draw in 2002). Amongst that has been a steady commentary gig for Channel Nine and columns for various newspapers.
He’ll Want What’s Best for the Game
Even the biggest Gus haters (like every Queenslander ever) will admit that he has the game’s best interests at heart. He has a few ‘out of the box’ ideas, like the conference system. If Gus did become CEO, he wouldn’t be afraid to try new things to improve the game, and he probably wouldn’t care if people disagreed with him.
He’s been involved in footy for over 40 years, so Gus’ little black book would be bulging. His Six Tackles co-host James Bracey joked about what would happen if Gus lost his phone, which would be a treasure chest of rugby league contacts. These contacts would ideally help Gus to bypass any red tape to put his ideas into action. As the old saying goes, “It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.”
He Could be too Powerful
Gus is a strong personality, and can be a target for controversy, even with his beloved Penrith, where his ‘five-year plan’ mantra was mocked by some critics. He was banished from the sidelines as coach of the Roosters in the mid-90s, he’s not afraid to criticise the game’s administrators, and the decision – while he was Penrith’s Executive General Manager – to sack coach Anthony Griffin on the eve of the 2018 finals series was astounding. ‘Hook’ is one of the game’s more likeable blokes; he played in the old Brisbane Rugby League, coached the Broncos in the tough post-Bennett years, and won 42 from 72 games in three years at Penrith. Hook was sacked after the Panthers’ round 21 win over Canberra (40-31), with the Panthers just outside the top four. Assistant coach Cameron Ciraldo took over, with the Panthers winning two of their next four games to finish fifth (missing the four by two points). They beat the Warriors in the elimination final, but lost the semi final to Cronulla-Sutherland by one point. Coach Ivan Cleary rejoined Penrith for the 2019 season, but a power struggle between the two saw Gus leave his EGM role in April 2019.
If Gus becomes CEO, he’ll need to avoid any political smoke-and-mirrors, which may detract from the good things he’s trying to do.
The Nine Conundrum
Channel Nine love keeping their old boys around (their cricket commentary team was criticised for failing to evolve where other broadcasters became more diverse), and Gus has been a commentator at Nine seemingly forever. Gus has a great footy brain and loves the big stage: his Origin pre-game pep talks have become legendary, though a lot of fans hate his commentary, seeing it as too biased towards NSW, and his playful bickering with Ray Warren turning into a Statler and Waldorf-style parody at times. His famous “no no no no no” catchphrase has gained its own life, and the ‘Shut up Gus’ meme does the social media rounds (mainly by Queenslanders) during Origin.
As well as his print commitments, he hosts a weekly Channel Nine podcast (the aforementioned Six Tackles), which allows him to deep dive into the game he loves.
In AFL-land, Eddie McGuire was criticised for commentating on Collingwood games for Nine while serving as Magpies President. If Gus becomes CEO, he’d have to scale his media commitments back, or cut them out completely. Some footy fans would see this as good thing: the less Gus on TV, the better.
Still, with Gus’ deep ties to Nine, would his decisions be unconsciously favoured towards them?
Nine have lost a lot of power since Foxtel came in: the Thursday night Footy Show (minus Paul ‘Fatty’ Vautin) died despite a late rebranding, and they only show footy on Thursday nights, Friday nights and Sunday afternoons (starting at 4pm so it runs directly into the news). They put more effort into the higher-rating Origin series and the finals, and the more serious 100% Footy panel show is quite good. If you live in an AFL-dominated state, the footy’s dumped on one of Nine’s digital channels (usually Gem), and they cut to a movie as soon as the game’s over.
Free-to-air/commercial TV in general has been left behind by Foxtel and all the specialist streaming services (Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime, Disney+). Kayo’s arrival has hurt Nine even more, with fans able to watch every game live (or on replay at their convenience) on multiple devices, broadcast through Fox League.
If Gus becomes CEO, will he happily sacrifice his media commitments (which he no doubt loves), or will he have an uncomfortable balancing act that would create a conflict of interest and accusations of bias? Speaking of which…
He May be too Pro-NSW
Gus played for four Sydney clubs, coached three Sydney clubs, and coached NSW in 24 Origins over a decade. Of course he’s going to be pro-NSW, which is sticking point for a lot of fans north of the border. They accuse Nine’s commentary team of being too blue-eyed (even with the addition of Queenslanders Darren Lockyer, Fatty, and Wally Lewis), and Gus doesn’t help that perception.
Despite the NSWRL/ARL/NRL’s attempts to expand the game into Queensland (successful) and AFL territory (unsuccessful: while the Storm are great, Adelaide and the Western Reds didn’t last long), there’s still a heavy NSW bias in the game, with nine teams based in Sydney, and the Newcastle Knights; Super League aside, every grand final has been played in Sydney, despite calls to play it at Suncorp Stadium – a world class stadium that consistently fills up, compared to Homebush’s ANZ Stadium, which only gets big numbers for Origin and the grand final.
Again, Gus’ NSW bias as NRL CEO may be unconscious, but Queenslanders (and other Gus-haters) won’t think that, eagerly putting their tin foil hats on whenever he speaks and flooding social media with their conspiracy theories.
Gus as CEO: Yes or No?
So, we’ve got three pros, and three cons, in this hypothetical argument.
Would Gus make a great CEO? I say yes, if only for his experience, his love of the game, and his desire to make it better. It’d be a political minefield, there’d be controversy, allegations of bias and potential conflicts of interest, and he’d have plenty of enemies (even more than he has now), but it would be worth it to see what he could do.
If nothing else, he’d get people talking about the game, which would be a great result.