RUGBY league can survive, recover and eventually thrive after the coronavirus crisis has passed. But for that to happen, the powers-that-be will need to reverse a generational trend and acknowledge that the fans, not the players, are their greatest asset.
Next week marks the 25th anniversary of a momentous date in rugby league history, and while the occasion might be overshadowed by the turmoil of the past fortnight, it should also serve as a reminder of why the 13-man code is facing what ARL Commission chairman Peter V'Landys has described as a "catastrophic" setback.
On March 31, 1995, rugby league changed forever, when News Limited launched the first Pearl Harbour-style attack in what would become known as the Super League war.
When the news broke in the following day's papers, most of us assumed it was an April Fools Day joke gone wrong. It was, unfortunately, no laughing matter, but a bloody revolution that would ultimately split the game in two and cause incalculable damage.
Super League, of course, was about broadcasting rights, as media barons Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer went toe-to-toe battling for sporting content to lure viewers to their respective TV stations.
But it was also a tale about the lengths to which people will go in their desperation to get rich quick.
The Newcastle Knights were a classic example.
For months, Newcastle officials had been negotiating confidentially with News Limited officials about becoming involved in the proposed Super League.
At the time, the Knights were battling to stay afloat financially. News Limited were offering a chance to pay off any existing debts, fund the club going forward, and invest in a much-needed stadium upgrade.
The problem was that the majority of Newcastle's players suited themselves and signed with the ARL establishment, effectively sabotaging any prospect of the Knights joining the likes of Brisbane, Canberra, Cronulla, Canterbury and Auckland in the breakaway competition.
A small group of players made a large amount of money ... and subsequently produced a fairytale by beating Manly in the 1997 ARL grand final. But in a short space of time, Knights management were back in a familiar position, existing on the breadline and struggling to pay the bills.
Across the competition, clubs were left facing the dilemma of having to pay their newly full-time professional players vastly increased wages.
Obviously an influx of broadcasting money from Foxtel and Channel Nine provided a revenue stream, but for the best part of 20 years, you could count on one hand the clubs who announced an annual profit.
Even after the NRL secured two consecutive broadcasting deals worth $1.025 billion and $1.8 billion (both over five years), it seems clubs and the governing body were putting aside a comparative pittance for any rainy day that might arise.
In the past five years or so, players' salaries have risen exponentially, to the point where most clubs have at least one $1 million man on their books. That Kieran Foran, Ash Taylor and Ben Hunt are pocketing seven figures per annum is surely all that needs to be said about the theory that inflation is out of control.
Indeed, even with the salary cap now worth $10 million, it is apparently not enough for some clubs, given the controversies of recent seasons relating to systematic rorting and third-party sponsorships.
And amid all this, the NRL and its clubs have come to view fans as consumers who can be exploited to their advantage.
Let's just consider the TV deals, for starters.
For years we had Monday-night games, which recently became Thursday-night games. Throw in the Friday 6pm fixtures and you have a quarter of every round played at times that make it inconvenient for spectators to attend.
Then during the annual Origin-season rounds, in which there might be only three or four games a week featuring vastly depleted teams, do fans get a discount if they attend? No chance.
Moreover clubs like Canterbury and South Sydney sold out their fans years ago by opting to play at cavernous ANZ Stadium, which is an ordinary place to watch any sporting event, other than a grand final, Origin or Bledisloe Cup.
Mix all that in with the outrageous prices stadiums charge for food and drink - not to mention the cost of official NRL merchandise - and it's hard not to reach the conclusion that fans have been getting ripped off for so long they have just come to accept it.
But now that the game has to rebuild from the ground up, reconnecting with fans shapes as a defining challenge for NRL management.
What the NRL will need more than anything - even above TV revenue - is bums on seats at games.
Cut ticket prices and schedule games when it suits spectators, rather than broadcasters, to get the turnstiles spinning.
Give fans some input at boardroom level, as is the case with German Bundesliga soccer clubs.
The coronavirus hiatus can be a unique chance to take stock and eventually make rugby league bigger and better. The fans, just as much as players and administrators, have to be an integral part in that process.
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