The Guardian 20 July, 2005

NRL plays man not ball

The National Rugby League (NRL) has launched a vicious attack on the head of its players' association after his members called for increased funding for junior rugby league. Rugby League Professionals Association CEO Tony Butterfield copped a battering after commissioning an independent valuation of the NRL's secret TV rights deal with the Nine Network and Fox Sports.

The analysis, by global investment bank Lazard, found the deal was at the low end of the reasonable range but appeared to ignore emerging new technologies such as broadband 3G phones.

The report also called for a proportionate increase in funding for juniors and clubs. The increase would see grants to juniors rise from $10 million to $20 million per annum and annual grants for clubs rise from $2.5 million to 5.2 million.

"The health of rugby league is the product of a team effort between the NRL, the clubs, the players and the junior leagues", Mr Butterfield said.

"We believe the distribution of income from the TV rights should reflect that partnership", he said drawing on his own experience as coach of the Dudley Magpies under-12s.

These conciliatory words drew a vicious response from the NRL, which told players to butt out of matters that did not concern them. "Today is typical of Tony Butterfield's approach to dealing with the NRL, it is nothing more than inaccurate and mischievous public grand standing", NRL chief executive David Gallop said.

Accusing Butterfield of making a "thinly veiled grab" at the salary cap, Gallop went on to reject the Lazard analysis as being based on the wrong figures while refusing to make details of the Nine- Fox deal public.

Gallop concluded his spray by asserting the RLPA had no interest in the broader debates around the game's future. "Tony is purporting to speak on behalf of the wider game from the grass roots to the clubs when of course he does not. He represents the NRL players' union."

Unions NSW Secretary John Robertson described the attack on the union leader as 'immature'. "Tony has legitimate right as the leader of a registered trade union to talk about the future of the game and the NRL criticisms just show that they are an industrially immature organisation."

On the figures, Lazard managing director Paul Binstead noted, the biggest issue was that News Ltd was both a stakeholder and the owner and the seller of rights, with interests in both the NRL and Fox.

In the absence of the sort of transparency which exists in comparable major sports, including the National Football League in the US, the public can have no idea what the value of the code really is.

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