How footy builds an inclusive Team Australia

By Peter Giurissevich, Senior Legal Counsel – NRL, BOSS Emerging Leaders Scholarship recipient and current student in the University of Sydney Business School MBA program.

_SYD0230The importance of grassroots participation to rugby league cannot be understated.

Without it, the next generation of stars and fans will not emerge and the elite level game will not survive. Without it, rugby league will not benefit the community and provide a platform for social inclusion, change and opportunity. Which is why grassroots programs should receive a bigger slice of the $1.8 billion broadcasting rights fee.

Consider the wonderful story of the under-14s Guildford Owls in Sydney’s western suburbs, whose rugby league team is comprised of boys of Australian, African, Middle Eastern, New Zealand, Samoan, Tongan and Turkish heritage. Their motto is “Brotherhood. Effort. Discipline.”

Before each game they form a circle and say an Islamic prayer and a Christian prayer. The prayers ask for the same thing: that they all play well and that their “brothers” play safely.

Rugby league is their common language and by participating in the game these kids break down the racial, ethnic and religious barriers that would otherwise divide them.

The inspiring stories don’t stop at the playing of the game. This year, the National Rugby League’s School to Work Indigenous mentoring program helped a young woman become the first Indigenous captain of her school (in Sydney’s south-west). It has also helped a young man, in foster care since the age of five, pursue his dream of becoming a cabinetmaker.

This is the power of rugby league. These are the types of stories that make the sport great.

Big business
These stories also demonstrate how rugby league creates hope and opportunities, unifies people and the extraordinary reach it has into diverse communities.

The numbers don’t lie: there are 725,000 registered participants (born in 115 countries) playing the traditional form of the game across Australia. Of those, about 3000 are elite-level players in the NRL Premiership and top flights in the state leagues. Add in modified forms of the game, including touch football, tag and school competitions, and the total number of participants jumps to nearly 1.4 million. There are also 400,000 women playing the game, a figure that has grown 27 per cent year on year.

Modern sport is very big business. The State of Origin series has consistently attracted the highest ratings on free-to-air television over the past few years: game one in 2016 had nearly 4 million viewers and an average 4 million viewers watched each round of the 2016 NRL Premiership regular season.

That many eyeballs allowed the NRL to pen a $1.8 billion deal in late 2016 with Fox Sports and the Nine Network for the rights to broadcast the State of Origin and NRL Premiership matches in the 2018 to 2022 seasons. It’s one of the richest television deals in Australian sports history.

These vast coffers of gold create challenges. The recent negotiations between the sport’s peak governing body, the Australian Rugby League Commission, state leagues and the NRL clubs on how to carve up the broadcast fees illustrates the difficulties faced when deciding funding levels between grassroots programs and the elite level. The NRL clubs and state leagues ultimately received a record level of funding, which impacts on the amount of money that finds its way to the grassroots.

Avid fans
There can be no denying that the elite level allows the NRL to grow the funding pie; after all, the fans want to see Johnathan Thurston magically put someone through a gap with deft hands, or James Tedesco’s almost alien-like fleet-footedness, or the gladiatorial battles between Matt Scott and Aaron Woods.

However, the high profile of the elite game has a limited future without the people who watch or participate at a grassroots level.

So, while the participation metrics are encouraging, it’s imperative that the NRL, state leagues and NRL clubs strive to encourage more participation and not lose focus on the grassroots as the epicentre of this great game. That is only possible by ensuring grassroots funding continues to grow.

This article was originally published in the Financial Review BOSS Magazine, February 2017.

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