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Australia's NRL brave new world

Photo: Getty ImagesThe NRL is in fine shape on the field. Now new CEO David Smith needs to do the same off the park 

Okay, so at long last the NRL has found a new chief executive. It goes without saying the appointee is an Australian with a background in sports administration and a lifelong passion for rugby league.
Well – um – no. David Smith is a Welshman who works for an international bank and whose preferred code has always had fifteen, rather than thirteen, per side.

So evidently this is a terrible appointment. Smith thinks Ben Barba is a Lidcombe hairdresser, Matt Gillett sells razors and Nigel Plum belongs in a pudding. He hasn’t experienced the peculiar horror of queuing for toilets at Brookvale or the chilling depersonalisation of a tiny crowd at Homebush. He has no explanation for why Channel Nine inflicts Ray Hadley on its audience, and he doesn’t get jokes about Greg Inglis’ boat. Sack him before he even starts!
Some of the commentary on Smith’s appointment has been hysterical, and a lot of it has been insular. Rather than looking at what Smith is not, let’s look at what he is. He presents as affable, enthusiastic, open-minded. He was in the British Army, which suggests a capacity for teamwork and toughness. At Lloyds International he headed the International Banking Division, which spanned ten countries, employed over 1500 staff and managed assets of $50 billion. He presided over a cataclysmic period in which the company lost $1.1 billion during the GFC, but wise heads say that only his skilful handling of the situation prevented the loss being much larger.
Finding fault with the appointment because he is not like previous NRL chief executives is the backwards thinking that plagues league. At BigPond Sport we hope he is a great success and takes the sport to a new level.
Smith is advantaged by starting in February 2013 after the tough work of negotiating the broadcast rights deal has been done, giving the NRL one billion dollars worth of breathing space. The first thing that should be on his agenda, however, is to look at diversifying revenue, so the game is not over-dependent on one periodic payday. This is one of the performance targets set by the Australian Rugby League Commission: to double non-broadcast revenue by 2017.
Other targets laid down by the ARLC for achievement inside five years are: to grow NRL attendance to an average of 20,000; to increase club membership by 14 per cent annually; and to increase volunteers and participation by three per cent annually.
Smith will need to address the salary cap – its size, how it is enforced, and the issue of third party agreements – but to be honest, this should not be daunting for someone who has managed Lloyds International.
One of his great advantages is that he is not captive to any of the tribes which dominate (and often damage) the sport. The two largest factions, of course, are New South Wales and Queensland. Smith needs to emphasise that the NRL spans Victoria, the ACT and New Zealand as well as the heartland states. He should look at merging or relocating at least two Sydney clubs, establishing a second New Zealand team, introducing another Queensland team, closely examining the credentials of the Perth bid, and ceasing the treatment of Melbourne Storm as some sort of embarrassing step-child, instead redoubling efforts to entrench the team and the code in the populous southern capital.
Smith will need to be both vigilant and proactive about the place of rugby league in the Australian sporting landscape. The code faces serious challenges from the AFL, especially in western Sydney and the southern Queensland growth corridor. Former NRL supremo David Gallop is now in charge of Football Federation Australia and will be doing whatever he can to assist the spread of soccer at the expense of his old sport. Rugby union remains a competitor. Smith should give serious consideration to an aggressive ‘no returns’ policy, whereby NRL defectors – to the AFL, like Israel Folau and Karmichael Hunt, and to rugby union, like Lote Tuqiri, Sonny Bill Williams and others – are wished all the best as they exit the code, but are told they will never be re-registered once they leave league.
Smith also has the delicate task of balancing the premier domestic competition (the NRL) against the demands of representative football. State of Origin might be the sport’s pinnacle, but it disrupts and corrupts the NRL competition. International rugby league continued to languish on Gallop’s watch. Not enough is done for the sport in league-eager nations like PNG, Fiji and Tonga, let alone ambitious potential markets like Lebanon, Italy and Russia.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, rugby league’s grassroots has to be looked after far better. This means school football, country teams, second- and third-tier competitions. There has not been enough love there for a long time.
Can Smith do it? "I can really make a contribution to the growth plans of the NRL," he said when appointed. "I’m a chief executive, and part of what I bring to the table is bringing people together and business opportunities together. (We have) a world-beating TV deal and I look forward to using the structure of that deal to take the game forward in strategic ways, working with all the stakeholder groups."
"It matters to people," he said. "It’s a great sport."
We couldn’t agree more.
The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.
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