SYDNEY, Australia - Rugby league fans still harbouring a grudge against Rupert Murdoch's News Corp for its devastating attempt to hijack their game two decades ago must be reeling as Murdoch has again declared war on rugby league.
Murdoch is furious that free-to-air television rights were sold to the Nine Network without other media groups, particularly News Corp, being given a chance to bid.
The NRL announcement of its record $925 million deal for free-to-air television rights to Channel 9 coincided with Mr Murdoch's arrival in Australia for a one-week visit. He was so enraged his own media outlets proffered that he changed his schedule to appear in a press conference in which the AFL announced earlier this week, its record $2.058 billion deal with Seven West, New Corp and Foxtel.
The bulk of the funds will come from News Corp, with many media reports suggesting News Corp was so unhappy with the NRL it pushed the boundary higher to embarrass NRL executives.
News Corps' journalists railed to the cause. After a week's awe of the extent of the NRL deal they all turned on rugby league with a ferocity. Paul Kent, a week after the deal was signed termed it a 'joke.' NRL heavyweights Dave Smith and John Grant who were invited to attend a News Corp lunch at Rose Bay "had the gall to turn up," News Corp executives told rival newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald. Another News Corp article said the pair attended to "rub News Corp's nose in it," and that when the pair left Smith had a 'smug smile' on his face.' What sort of journalism is that? Another report says the two attended the lunch to humiliate News Corp.
A story still runs with the headline "Why smug Smith should walk away."
"In what can only be described as the greatest rub your nose in it media conference in Australian sport, Murdoch changed his travel plans to be part of the Melbourne AFL show that should sound the death knell for Smith and Grant," Rebecca Wilson wrote in The Daily Telegraph on Thursday.
"The biggest free-to-air deal in Australian professional sport and pay television's largest commitment to any football code is a sign that Foxtel will not be bullied into paying top dollar for the four worst league games each weekend."
"It is also apparent that New South Wales and Queensland are on notice. AFL is only going to get bigger, the back-up is coming from the media juggernauts at Seven and Foxtel, and the only loser will be rugby league," said the Daily Telegraph article.
"Rupert Murdoch fought tooth and nail to own rugby league and to control the television rights into perpetuity. He showed he would pay through the nose for them too," wrote Wilson.
"Now he has switched his allegiances and made it clear league is a poor relation."
Yet only 10 days ago, possibly the most respected rugby league writer for the Daily Telegraph Phil Rothfield was saying: "The biggest winners in the NRL's new television deal are the fans. Four games live on free-to-air television is a massive improvement on the previous deal in 2013 when there was originally only one live match on Friday nights."
To see a major Australian-U.S. corporation of the size of News Corp throwing a tantrum like it has in the past 48 hours is extraordinary. The last time it didn't get its way with securing the broadcast rights for rugby league it launched the Super League War, which almost bankrupted the ARL and cost News Corp's shareholders several hundred million dollars in losses.
As part of the settlement News Corp became the owner of 50% of the newly-formed NRL which it relinquished three years ago. Ever since it has put the boots into the NRL on every opportunity it could.
The media group's journalists, many of whom feed off the NRL, covering the sport, appearing on rugby league sports shows, and writing books about the sport have no compulsion about denigrating it whenever instructed.
It is extraordinary to see a company the size of News Corp heaping such vengeance because it couldn't get its way. And to do it so publicly exhibits an arrogance that only it could get away with.
To over-pay for AFL rights to 'punish' the NRL, to publicly declare that you are going to put all your resources and clout to strengthen the AFL and ensure its expansion into the rugby league territories of New South Wales and Queensland to make a point is bizarre. Rugby league fans must be wondering what it is they've done to deserve the wrath of News Corp for a second time. It is they who are the majority of those who buy or subscribe to The Daily Telegraph, The Courier Mail, Foxtel and Fox Sports as much as anyone else. But News Corp doesn't care, it is out for revenge.
On Friday News Corp was at it again, suggesting rugby league is on the brink of losing its major sponsor Telstra, because it too is 'furious' over the rugby league's deal with Nine. "News of the latest development continues a horror week for the NRL after its $925 million deal was dwarfed by a $2.5 billion deal," the Daily Telegraph sprouted, quite inaccurately.
Then James Hooper wrote up an article saying it was a "minor miracle," rugby league chief Dave Smith was 'hit with a poison dart at a Fox Sports function at the Glenmore Hotel last Tuesday night.'
It seems Smith was invited to a welcoming event for the world's top dart players by Fox Sporst chief executive Patrick Delany.
"Television types had to pick themselves up off the top-level outdoor bar's floor when Smith strutted in displaying more front than Glenn Lazarus," Hooper wrote.
"The atmosphere around NRL boss Smith was described as "below frosty", with one TV executive quipping: "He's lucky he didn't end up with a dart in the neck."
The Daily Telegraph article then suggests Smith must be in line for a multi-million dollar bonus for negotiating the rights deal with Nine.
The big question is: Why in any event is News Corp so angry about the sale of free-to-air TV rights? It doesn't own any free-to-air television stations in Australia.
Or does it?