Updated: Jun 6, 2020
Rugby Union, the game they play in Heaven? Quite literally perhaps in a post-COVID-19 world. As sporting codes around the world suffer a crisis for which there is no playbook, Australia’s unique sporting landscape could result in the death of Australian Rugby Union.
Super Rugby - once brilliant and innovative - appears dead as we know it. Australian Rugby remains without a TV deal post-2020; with very little product of value to see. One suggestion bandied around to create a product has been the use of Sydney and Brisbane GPS Rugby. Whilst unlikely, it makes you wonder, what if.
It’s 2021 and Post COVID school rugby is about to kick off. Cameras shine, star flyhalfs are interviewed, and in their homes around the nation people tune in. Chased by the ARU, NRL, and AFL clubs, today's crop of rugby talent are young superstars. Supported by ASICS, 1000’s of Instagram followers, they have developed a close friendship over the years. FoxSports has convinced them to announce their professional plans at the end of the season in a joint press conference. Meanwhile, their schools and many others around Brisbane and Sydney have had a nice little payday.
With the sun shining, all is ready on a stunning Saturday in August. The whistle blows. Nothing happens. Waiting patiently, the referee finally blows for a time-wasting penalty. Undaunted, the away captain smiles; playfully flicking the ball to his great mate and opposition captain. Committed, the home school superstar points to the post.
Schoolboy superstars are making others rich. Photo credit: Queensland Times
Thrilled, a Year 5 student delivers a kicking tee. Idolising the Year 12 student he stands behind, waiting patiently. Our captain, a prodigious right foot kick, places the ball at an unusual 90-degree angle to the post. Quick to notice from his position above the halfway line, the FoxSports commentator questions the unorthodox set-up. Confused by the technique; our captain lines up as if he will kick the ball the wrong way. Throughout the large crowd, uneasy murmurs swirl. Hands up and quiet, the home students look on astonished. Why on earth does he look like he is aiming at the commentators? His run-up begins.
The legacy of Ed O’Bannon has reached Australian shores. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, responsible for running the sports of those colleges whose bandwagon you have jumped on is a not-for-profit organisation that happens to make $1 billion a year. It’s athletes until recently received at most a full scholarship.
Seeking his piece of the pie, O’Bannon sued the NCAA over the use of his likeness. Most famously, the use of player likenesses in EA Sports College Football and Basketball games. His 2014 victory resulted in these famous titles ceasing. For context, in these games, all colleges and stadiums appeared licensed, whilst the players appeared as they were in real life but without any names. QB#2 or WR#11 became household names. A quick download of a roster fixed this. People were buying games to use stars like Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel, yet Cam and Johnny didn’t see a cent.
With this ruling; change began to roll in. Over the next few years, the NCAA allowed athletes to be paid an extra $2000 - $4000 as a cost of attendance allowance. This trickled into a 2019 to approve college athletes to make money off of their image and likenesses. Whilst these rules have yet to be finalised, it is still a positive step for young American athletes, who for years have performed, entertained, and made millions for others whilst barely seeing a cent.
So let's flick back to Australian conversation. Our captains and young school stars have been the pin-up boys of a large advertising campaign to launch this debut TV season. For years, their faces have been used in their respective schools' game day programs to flog local backers. This week alone, they’ve spent hours in production meetings with the commentators. They both have assessments due Wednesday; which they have barely been able to touch. Exhausted, they began to wonder what is in this for them. Everyone’s making money but them.
Messaging each other early that week; they made a list of everyone they made money for. YouTube video creators, school photographers, their schools, the live-streaming company, sponsors of the school, and now Rugby Australia. Where is their slice? Where is the slice for their school mates, who’ve trained like professionals? Been criticised like professionals. Without them, there would be no content.
Symbolically, the penalty kick ends up in the commentator's box. For today at least, this is enough. It’s game on. They have been heard.
This seems fanciful right now; students would find this hard to pull off. Seriously though, as the ARU grows more desperate, the next level of commercialisation level of schoolboy rugby grows nearer. Fascinating times await.