Raelene Castle is to be admired for the way she has taken the fight up to the heavy hitters during Rugby Australia’s television rights battle.
Rugby is wounded. Everyone knows it. Australia's Super Rugby teams are light years from a title and the Wallabies are a shadow of their former glory – they're full of the self-indulgent and entitled.
A positive is the club competition in Sydney and Brisbane, where there has been a rearguard action from lovers of the game who have gone back to support the code at the grassroots level. It’s been a protest and the hierarchy has seen it.
With Israel Folau and Michael Cheika behind them, Castle and co. at RA headquarters have clear air in front of them. And rather than simply roll over when the big beast that is Fox Sports lobbed an offer for the TV rights for the next five-year deal on the table, Castle rejected it.
Many argue she should have accepted the $US200 million ($300 million). Certainly Fox Sports’ public relations arms in the form of News Corporation papers said as such. To the point Castle was dreadfully belittled in a "how dare she knock back the might of Fox Sports" kind of way.
The fact is, Castle couldn’t roll over. It would have signalled weakness. There is no chief executive anywhere who would have. But, because this is a sport, somehow people think it is different to a big corporate deal involving, say, the merger of two companies.
It’s not. It’s a big-time corporate deal and should be treated as such. Castle’s duty to the game is to explore every avenue and make Fox Sports sweat no matter how much newsprint they have access to.
Castle had to protect the future of the game and ensure a broadcasting deal would bring excitement to the television coverage. Fox Sports’ offering is tired and is not advancing the game. They will not like to read that, but they know it – which is why they are jettisoning on-air and off-air staff.
They even had to draft in a political reporter in Kieran Gilbert – who did a great job – to host the World Cup. But then he went back to Canberra.
Castle must get one Super Rugby match a week on free-to-air TV. By staring down Fox Sports, she will achieve that.
The move to bring the clubs along for the ride is cunning. They get a nice pay-off, debts wiped and money for promotion. Sydney clubs voted 19-0 to go with RA’s plan.
When you are running a sport and people you have rubbed the wrong way, such as broadcast partners, are baying for your blood, having the grassroots in your corner is an almost unbeatable position.
Castle also knows Fox Sports’ threats to walk away are hollow.
Remember when the NRL under Dave Smith did a deal with Channel Nine for the rugby league rights and left Fox Sports out?
Rupert Murdoch then signed the AFL rights for a record amount and sat at a press conference and said: “We always preferred AFL anyway.”
A few weeks later it appeared they also preferred the NRL all along as they jumped in bed with Channel Nine and bought the pay TV rights off them.
Right now this is a tricky business proposition for Fox Sports and its streaming service Kayo. Revenues are bleeding and they must reduce costs. But when you let big sports go, a competitor has a chance to wound you further. The downward spiral is hard to stop.
But when money is tight, do you throw it at a sport with problems?
Castle will win in the end.