Are we heading for the first-ever NRL Lockout?
With a year of CBA talks resulting in nothing so far, is the worst-case scenario a genuine possibility?
WRITER | DECEMBER 17, 2022 - 9:00AM
After months of negotiations and regular iterations that things will be sorted ‘by the end of the week', we're still without any clarity on a Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NRL
, ARLC and RLPA.
Given the previous deal expired at the end of October and things now appear unlikely to be resolved by the end of the year, it's worrying.
We're a month and a half into the free agency period and teams still can't make any substantial offers due to the fact they have no idea how much money they'll be allowed to spend in the new-look salary cap.
All we keep hearing is: ‘end of the week'.
It's worse for the women's game, with NRLW
clubs unable to assemble their squads and players being forced to put their lives and livelihoods on hold. However difficult NRL
squads may have it, the women's game is in a far more perilous position.
So what the hell is taking so long?
It's hard to ascertain when no one other than RLPA president Clint Newton
is willing to shed too much light on talks. That's understandable in such meaningful deliberations, but as the situation drags on, communication should become paramount. Fans are stakeholders - we don't need to have a say on the matter, but we deserve to know what's happening.
The silence is deafening, and that fuels the belief that something is amiss.
NEWTON'S LAW: RLPA boss Clint Newton
has been the only participant willing to speak to media regularly throughout the process. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
It's time to start asking just how this situation could end if the parties still can't come to an agreement. Come January they'll have just six weeks before trial games start – so if nothing changes, what will happen to the NRL
Are we about to see industrial action in an Australian sporting organisation? Are we about to see Australian rugby league's first-ever ‘lockout'?
It's hard to believe, but with every week that passes it becomes a more realistic proposition. If CBA terms haven't been agreed before Round 1, how is the competition supposed to go ahead?
“If we got to any type of industrial action, it would be a disaster for the code,” said RLPA Spokesperson Clint Newton
– back at the start of November.
“We have a great opportunity to reach an agreement, have a CBA we can all stand on top of proudly and point to. We will continue to work through it and hold the line.”
Even saying ‘hold the line' could be seen as a forewarning of industrial action.
Unfortunately, other than those details infrequently eked to the public through Newton, there's little noise coming out of either end of the process.
repeated attempts to speak with both parties have been met with either flat-out refusal or indirect avoidance. The NRL
have advised they won't talk about the matter until it is concluded.
But if it's taken this long, who's to say it won't take even longer?
What is a lockout?
In the simplest terms, a lockout is the shutdown of a professional league, typically prompted by a failure to come to terms on a collective bargaining agreement.
Though it's been an almost exclusively American problem over the years and has experienced plenty of variations across their major codes, that sounds exactly like what we're facing at the moment in the NRL
It might take a slightly different shape here – in the US it's the franchise owners who shut things down, hence ‘lock out' the players as terms continue to be negotiated – but regardless of how it's executed, any industrial action would mean players don't take the field.
It's a precarious and complicated situation when you factor in the pressure from broadcasters to ensure the terms of their own highly-valued agreements are met. Without those broadcast deals, and without a product, revenue streams will take a significant hit that will then have a subsequent run-on effect for the next round of CBA negotiations.
In the most recent American lockout – the MLB lockout of 2021-22 – the league shut down for three months through pre-season following the expiration of the CBA. Despite having that time to do little else but come to an agreement, the league was forced to reschedule the two opening series' of the season because a deal had still not been reached.
So far, we're not going that way, despite the absence of a new deal and the ever-present uncertainty about what the future holds.
But if club owners decided to enact something similar, either at their own direction or that of the ARLC, pre-season training would be stopped, players would be prohibited from entering facilities, and clubs would remove all promotional content for the new season.
In the most recent NBA lockout (2011), clubs were not allowed to sign or trade players and facilities were closed as pre-season games were cancelled and the league was delayed for a month. When it came back, the season length had been reduced.
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 08: Billy Hunter (5th L), Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association, listens as Derek Fisher (6th L), President of the National Basketball Players Association (C), speak at a press conference after the NBPA held a meeting to discuss the NBA lockout at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers on November 8, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
NRL clubs can't currently sign players, and with a considerably shorter season schedule than American codes, any shortening of the season would be disastrous to revenue from broadcast arrangements.
The NBA also experienced an economic impact, with broadcast partners losing both ratings and advertising revenue. The clubs themselves lost revenue from unplayed games and the takings that would have come from them.
Players went and joined foreign leagues to maintain match fitness, able to return when the league was finally green-lit.
It's worth noting that at the time of the NBA lockout, the league had posted a financial loss and only one-fifth of teams were profitable. That's why the biggest sticking point was a reduction in the share of revenue that players would be entitled to. That's not on the table in rugby league. Players are getting an increase - it's a matter of how much.
Eventually, terms were agreed and the shortened NBA season went ahead – but the deal far closer to the players' demands than the hopes of owners and administrators.
Thanks to the delays caused by industrial action, owners and players lost approximately $400 million. Though the league compensated players with $100,000 for lost revenue, the average lost income among players was over twice that amount.
Worse than the hip-pocket hit the players took, staff in both the NBA administration and various club set-ups lost their jobs. It was action felt by everyone, from headline players and club owners down to the part-time arena cleaning staff.
In the case of the NRL and RLPA, while both sides will likely earn a mix of praise and condemnation for their refusal to make any grand concessions that could expedite negotiations, if this situation continues they could ultimately be hurting themselves the most.
So, where are we at??
Of course, there are significant differences and complexities that make it hard to directly compare the current NRL situation with the American lockouts.
First and foremost, US competitions contain more teams and considerably more capital. While the NRL
made approximately $575 million in revenue for 2021, the NBA made $8.3 billion – and that was a downturn from the year before.
Given NRL teams only play one game per week and the season is fewer than 30 games long for most, lost revenue wouldn't be anywhere near as high as the American organisations. But in relative terms, it would still be an unmitigated disaster.
At its core, the issues are the same – how big a piece of the pie should players be entitled to?
Industrial action and questions like this are always quite divisive, so it's understandable that neither party wants to entertain the thought publicly just yet.
But to ignore the increasing possibility of it as we head into the new year with no end in sight also becomes increasingly perilous.
Already the poles have been twitched at the extreme ends of public perception - people who think players are overpaid and over-entitled, and those who think the players should be given whatever they want after the sacrifices of COVID.
Admirably, the RLPA is also fighting for fringe players and the women's game, as well as setting up support and welfare structures for active and past players, which is increasingly important as we learn about the dire straits more and more former players are finding themselves facing.
EQUALITY GAP: The future of both the NRLW
and its players is in the most precarious position of all interests represented in current talks. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
Harry Grant has spoken about the need to do more to protect young and aspiring players financially so they can chase their dreamas and the RLPA has subsequently requested a doubling of the minimum wage.
While it's a altruistic notion worthy of praise, such a demand is not a simple fix, and it puts a mountain of pressure on budgets and the cap, making the issue of inflexibility more pronounced.
NRLW players and coaches have talked about the challenges they have to face, training for the new season without contracts in place and far fewer protections for their livelihoods than their NRL counterparts. They cannot sign any deals for the next NRLW season until the CBA is finalised.
If an NRLW star gets injured in pre-season, they're not covered and their careers could be over. Imagine living life with that much professional uncertainty. Imagine wanting to chase your dream that badly and having to wait while suits and full-timers get to decide your fate for you.
There's also the issue of COVID, and the sacrifices players made financially to keep the game afloat when others around the world closed. In isolation, this context makes the NRL's refusal of the two per cent increase the players are aiming for look questionable.
It's clear the players believe they are owed for the sacrifices they made – and few fans would disagree - but the reality must be more difficult than the proposition because it's hard to believe the ARLC would willfully refuse without reason.
But there are other sticking points as well.
The RLPA wants a seat on the ARLC so that players can have a voice whenever Peter V'landys or Andrew Abdo are next compelled to change the rules on a whim. The ARLC has pushed back, claiming they want the body to remain independent.
Is it really so outrageous that the players would like to be consulted about decisions that will impact them? To be fair, negotiations aren't helping their cause. Can you imagine if every decision the RLPA made took this long?
The ARLC has been championing a transfer window, while the RLPA claim it's a restraint of trade. There's the minimum wage, protections for the women's game, increases in prize money - both for the grand final and the NRL's proposed pre-season competition, which looks less likely and more ill-conceived every day.
If these negotiations were only getting underway now, we'd rightfully be nervous.
But they aren't, they've been going on for the better part of a year. If it's taken this long, is it that hard to believe we could reach mid-February without a new CBA?
We were told on November 8 that parties expected the CBA to be sorted 'by the end of the week'.
When we got to December 5 with no CBA in place, we were told to expect it 'by the end of the week'.
Just last week NewsCorp
ran a story about the mass of signings expected after the CBA was going to be confirmed - at the end of the week.
Now, just over a week from Christmas, the Herald
has reported that no one in clubland is confident a deal will be struck by the new year.
I find it hard to believe that the RLPA haven't considered what industrial action looks like by this point.
WARNING SIGN: The impacts of any industrial action could be similar to the effects felt by the game during the height of the COVID pandemic. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)
Back in November, Newton said: "We haven't threatened to boycott matches and stand down or have mass player activations. That's not the way we wanted to approach negotiations."
It may not be the way they wanted to approach things, but as 2023 draws closer by the day, it might be time to start thinking about how it all ends.
We'll let you know by the end of next week.
With a year of talks resulting in nothing so far, is the worst-case scenario a genuine possibility?