There’s a perception in clubland and the wider game that there won’t be peace at the NRL until John Grant is no longer at the helm.
When something goes wrong, Grant is the first person blamed. Rightly or wrongly, there’s so much animosity towards the ARLC chairman that his position has become almost untenable.
There’s no doubt the clubs will try to take advantage of the latest broken promise to remove him from power, but just as quickly as they have turned on him, most will change their minds if he manages to get the money back on the table.
But therein lies the problem.
Ultimately, in giving in to the demands of the clubs to save his job last year, or so it goes, Grant lost the one thing needed to make sure he could be successful leading the sport into the future – their respect. One chairman said: “He’s an honourable man but a gutless leader.”
Back to that broken promise. It all began when Grant agreed to set the club funding at 130 per cent of the salary cap for next season.
It was assumed the salary cap would be $10m, providing the clubs with an additional $3m to run their operations. But soon after making that commitment, the NRL realised the game wouldn’t be able to cope with a salary cap of $10m without running into cashflow problems. The clubs say the NRL would easily be able to afford to fund the clubs to the tune of $13m each if it had not wasted money elsewhere.
Grant took the offer off the table but offered an olive branch – he would give the clubs $13m regardless of the limit set for the salary cap. Naturally, the poorer clubs who had been looking to solve cashflow concerns – such as Wests Tigers and St George Illawarra, began pushing for a lower salary cap so the clubs’ share of the money went up.
But the wealthier clubs, such as the Bulldogs and the Roosters, were lobbying for an increased salary cap so they could go out on spending sprees to strengthen their teams and fight for a premiership. That divided the clubs. But when the NRL announced on Wednesday that the cashflow problems had already surfaced and would leave the clubs around $1.5m short on payments for next year, the frustrated clubs were united once more.
One of the chief gripes? It’s not as if the NRL doesn’t have the money. The governing body has put around $100m aside for grassroots rugby league and another $150m aside to invest in its digital media strategy over the next five years.
The NRL believes its digital media strategy is essential given its fears that the game will not have television networks lining up with open cheque books when the next broadcast rights deal is negotiated.
But most clubs don’t see it as a priority. And certainly not at that price. They are frustrated, at best, that the NRL refuses to divert a small portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars it spends on grassroots and digital media to fund the clubs to the tune of $13m.
The game’s total annual revenue is in the region of $500m. If each club received $13m in funding, it would cost the league $208m. That would leave $292m to spend on operational costs, including $50m per year in digital and grassroots funding. The clubs believe if the NRL can’t make that work, they are being reckless with their spending.
Which brings us to this point. At 9.07pm on Wednesday night, just a few hours after proposing that they phase out club payments over six years instead of the agreed five to cover for the shortfall, NRL chief Todd Greenberg sent an email to all clubs bosses and chairs.
He sensed panic. He knew they were about to revolt. So he assured them the NRL would do everything in its power to source the money to follow through on the commitment Grant had made.
The likely solution to the current impasse is that the NRL will go to major sponsor like Telstra or a bank and ask for a loan, knowing full well the interest paid by the NRL during that time will only reduce the amount it forks out to the sport.
Another gripe of the clubs was that the NRL waited until the majority of the chairmen – who are viewed as the antagonists – left Wednesday’s meeting before unveiling the proposal to the chief executives. That was perceived as weak.
So where to now? Well, the chairman – who this time last week were separated into two factions – are planning to meet next week to discuss the possibility of calling an EGM to vote for Grant to be removed as ARLC chairman.
They only need one club to call the EGM, but they need a majority of members, which is made up of the 16 clubs, two states and six commissioners, to remove Grant.
Problem is, the two NRL-owned clubs, Newcastle and the Gold Coast, are unlikely to vote with them. That’s why plans to remove Grant failed last time. But the majority clubs hope another public humiliation could force him to walk, in any case.