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EDITORIAL | Does Channel Nine Deserve the NRL?

One of the fallouts of the NRL’s COVID-19 postponement has been Nine’s commitment to the game.

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Not only have they attacked the NRL’s management of rugby league, but their commitment over a revised 15-round competition has been questioned. Regardless of whether Nine are right or wrong, it’s not a good look.

So does Nine deserve the footy?

Fox League is now the home of the NRL, joining the AFL and cricket in having dedicated, 24-hour channels. This allows them to air as many NRL-based panel shows during the week. Fox League – along with the NRL website – have done a fantastic job of giving fans regular classic matches to enjoy during the competition’s postponement.

Nine, meanwhile, only show three games a weekend: Thursday night, Friday night and Sunday afternoon (a 4pm game so it leads straight into the news). While the Thursday night Footy Show is long gone, the Sunday version is still around and they do have some panel shows (100% Footy, Freddy and the Eighth), a podcast (Six Tackles with Gus), and post-game shows on Thursday and Friday nights. They do put more effort in for the high-rating Origin series and the finals though.

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If you’re a footy fan in an AFL-dominated state, you may as well live on the moon. The normal Thursday and Friday night games are dumped on a digital channel (usually 9Gem), and they cut to a movie as soon as the game finishes. Good luck trying to find any NRL-related shows either; you’re better off downloading the 9Now app.

The NRL needs free-to-air coverage to survive: Super Rugby has declined since becoming Foxtel-exclusive (though Kayo has helped non-Foxtel subscribers to watch the games), and cricket fans are still mad that One-Day Internationals are not on free-to-air TV.

If Nine doesn’t want to show the NRL anymore, what are the alternatives?

SEVEN: Channel Seven did a fine job with the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, especially on their 7Plus streaming service. Seven already have the AFL, so it may be hard to juggle the two sports (though they’d love to lord it over bitter rivals Nine by having both the NRL and AFL, and they could pinch Nine’s best commentators). However, like Nine, footy fans in AFL-dominated states will be shafted, though the NRL and 7Mate (with their “blokey” target audience) could be a good fit. While the RLWC worked because it was a one-off competition in October-November, trying to fit both the NRL and AFL on the same channel will be too hard.

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TEN: Channel Ten was home of the NSWRL from 1983 until 1991, led by the amazing Graeme Hughes, so there’d be nostalgic value in Ten getting the NRL. They did a wonderful job with the Big Bash League (despite making the commentators constantly plug I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here) and the AFL (showing games on Saturday nights followed by insightful post-game shows). Ten also show the Wallabies Tests, but this wouldn’t be a huge juggling act. It’d be more fun watching a regular season NRL game than watch the Wallabies lose to the All Blacks again. Again, Nine’s best commentators would be up for grabs.

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ABC: One for the romantics. The ABC dominated Saturday afternoon footy in the 80s and 90s (with a Sunday morning replay), led by Warren Boland. ABC Grandstand does an amazing job with their radio coverage, so they could hand-pick their best commentators for a return to TV.

SBS: Don’t bother. While SBS has done well with the NBL and soccer, they don’t have a history with rugby league, and it would be way too risky. Though you can still watch SBS for new South Park and Brookyn Nine-Nine.

So, how about a trio of Ten, ABC and Fox League? It may sound a lot, but the AFL did this in the early 2000s with Nine, Ten, and Foxtel.

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Here’s how it could work:

TEN: Channel Ten would broadcast the Thursday and Friday night prime time games, plus a couple of midweek panel shows (either shown late at night or on one of Ten’s digital channels). They would exclusively air Origin, the finals and the grand final.

ABC: the ABC would be the home of daytime footy: the Saturday afternoon game and a Sunday afternoon double-header. With night-time footy more alluring for broadcasters, ‘sacrificing’ daytime footy to the ABC shouldn’t be a big deal, and it’d make fans happy.

Fox League: Fox League would continue as usual, broadcasting all regular season games live and ad-free, sharing Thursday and Friday prime-time with Ten, Saturday afternoon and both Sunday afternoon games with the ABC. They could rebrand their exclusive Saturday night coverage as ‘Super Saturday Night.’

Here’s what a hypothetical round looks like:

Thursday 8pm: Ten and Fox League.

Friday 6pm: Fox League.

Friday 8pm: Ten and Fox League.

Saturday 3pm: ABC and Fox League.

Saturday 5:30pm: Fox League.

Saturday 7:30pm: Fox League.

Sunday 2pm and 4pm: ABC and Fox League.

That’s five free-to-air games each weekend; a great result for footy fans.

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