Sport

How the NRL played politics and emerged as the big winner from grand final stoush

After a month of posturing, positioning, politicking and publicity-hunting, the NRL has agreed to stage the 2022 NRL grand final in Sydney with Accor Stadium to host the decider for the 23rd time. It was long assumed the showpiece event would return to Sydney this season after Covid forced the 2021 title decider to Brisbane, but when politics and sport collided over the issue, all bets were off.

The origins of this trace back to the fall of Gladys Berejiklian as NSW premier. Her government, through Sports Minister Stuart Ayres, had promised the NRL $800m in funding to upgrade four suburban venues. That promise came on the back of a deal to not proceed with a planned upgrade of the Sydney Olympic stadium that was initially tied into a plan that would also see the Sydney Football Stadium rebuilt. The new Moore Park venue, which has been completed at a cost of $828m is due to open in two weeks.

Berejiklian’s successor Dominic Perrottet took a different view on stadium funding and advised ARLC chair Peter V’landys that funding for suburban ground upgrades would no longer be a priority for the government. This came after an April meeting that saw $300m in funding for an upgrade to Penrith Stadium – located in Ayres’ seat – locked in.

Funding for the remaining three venues – Leichhardt Oval, Brookvale Oval and Cronulla’s Shark Park – would be redirected to flood rebuilding efforts, a decision V’landys said “was using the human floods to spin it”. Leichhardt Oval had a railing collapse days after it was revealed the state would be deferring any funding for an upgrade.

The stoush became very public in early August and created significant uncertainty as to where the 2022 grand final would be played. It also, by design or by accident, provided a new revenue stream for the NRL and a template by which future grand final venues would be decided.

V’landys retaliated to the tearing up of an arrangement with the NSW government dating back to 2018 that would keep the season decider in Sydney until 2042 – a failure “to honour an agreement”, according to the ARLC chair. It was a stick wielded publicly and often during recent negotiations as the NRL opened talks with the Queensland government to stage the game at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium.

Nothing drives a price north more than competitive tension and V’landys created it by turning Queensland into a legitimate player. Leaks suggested that the grand final would move to Brisbane. Even in announcing Sydney as the winner, V’landys declared that “media reports that were giving out that Queensland were favourites were on the mark”. It was not until NSW offered a figure believed to be in the region of $8m at the last minute that the NRL gave the game to Sydney.

Victory for the NRL was not just a cash hit in an environment where the government is looking to shift money away from sports funding. It also opened the door to sell to the highest bidder each year in a situation V’landys likened to the Super Bowl, ensuring the NRL gets a significant cash injection along with leverage over state governments to ensure rugby league projects receive ongoing funding.

The NRL managed to extract millions of extra dollars for a product that had not changed, and as V’landys was at pains to stress “this is only for one year”. An incredibly astute political player who has a long history of winning clashes over both change and money, V’landys has created a landscape where state governments could potentially throw significant sums at the NRL on an annual basis, knowing that failure to do so could have very real electoral consequences, at least in traditional rugby league states.

Pressure is building on Perrottet to take further funding away from rugby league projects – such as the confirmed Penrith Stadium upgrade – but given how the last four months have played out and the potential ramifications of losing most favoured nation status with the NRL, it is unlikely to be a fight the chastened premier will seek out.

Even in victory, V’landys could not help but rub Perrottet’s nose in his political loss, saying: “Dom is a very good premier, a very good human being, but don’t have a bet with him because if you win he won’t pay.” It was a throwaway line but one that speaks to where power resides in this stoush. The game has changed and rugby league is unquestionably the winner.

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