Throwback Thursday: Murdoch's Super League splits Rugby in two
When Rupert Murdoch couldn't get pay TV rights to Rugby League, he split the game in half and created his own league. As you do.
screengrab from Google
Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from this week in sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids.In the first Australia/New Zealand installment, we go back in time to March 1997 and round one of the newest league in town, Rupert Murdoch's Superleague.
Rugby league in Australia has its fair share of natural division: Queensland vs NSW, biffing vs no biffing, Boots N' All vs the Sunday Footy Show. But the code was never more fractured than in 1997 when it was temporarily hijacked altogether.
Imagine trying to start a new league to compete with the NBA or Premier League. Not a new team, a new league. To stand any chance at all, you'd have to be rich. Really rich. And confident, and delusional, and there's probably no chance it would ever work.
Rugby league on the other hand caters to a much smaller market and is relatively underdeveloped, so is a perfect target for the kind of tycoon who perhaps partially sociopathically doesn't understand the concept of not getting what they want.
Enter mid-90s Rupert Murdoch, riding the wave of The Simpsons and establishing Fox News. In 1993 the ARL, then Australia's premier rugby league competition, sold their free-to-air TV rights to Kerry Packer's Channel Nine and pay-TV rights to Packer's Optus Vision. Desperate to get rugby league programming on his burgeoning venture Foxtel, Murdoch and former Broncos executive John Ribot launched a brand new competition called Super League to compete with the ARL.
Here's a commercial for the Super League featuring rugby league hunks standing in shadows to a cover of 'We Are The Champions'
It's important to note that in the wild west of the pre-NRL days of rugby league, our national competition was not yet a strong brand. According to legendary coach Wayne Bennett: "Rugby league wasn't making any money." And neither were the players or coaches.
Super League spruikers contended the ARL was too Sydney-centric, the salary cap was too low, and the commercialisation of the sport both domestically and internationally was too slow, all of which was stunting the sport's potential to explode in value.
Seemingly with a plan to hemorrhage money until the ARL died first, Super League offered star players deals worth (adjusted for inflation) almost $1 million a year, which basically noone makes in rugby league in 2016, let alone 20 years ago. John Ribot claims they generated 50 times the money for broadcast rights than the ARL had been receiving from Packer
Suddenly, historic teams and legendary players were jumping ship to chase all this new money, and for the concurrent 1997 ARL and Super League seasons, the sports fans, viewers and sponsors were split in two, for the most part damaging both.
ARL: Balmain Tigers, Gold Coast Chargers, Illawarra Steelers, Manly Sea Eagles, Newcastle Knights, Parramatta Eels, St George Dragons, South Queensland Crushers, South Sydney Rabbitohs, Sydney City Roosters, Western Sydney Magpies
Super League: Adelaide Rams, Auckland Warriors, Brisbane Broncos, Canberra Raiders, Canterbury Bulldogs, Cronulla Sharks, Hunter Mariners, North Queensland Cowboys, Penrith Panthers, Perth Reds.
When both the ARL and Super League realised they were heading for a Cold War-style mutual destruction, the two came together to for the National Rugby League. Several teams like the Adelaide Rams were folded, others such as the Illawara Steelers were merged with others. Murdoch's Mexican standoff somewhat worked, as News Limited (now News Corp) owned a 50% stake in the NRL until 2012 when the Australian Rugby League Commission took control.
It's hard to know how much money Murdoch and co. lost by trying to take over the code, and it's entirely likely they'd have made it back through Foxtel rights since then. But rugby league still hasn't embraced Murdoch who, after being snubbed in the latest round of broadcast dealings, declared he has always preferred AFL.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jasonjcohn