The Nine Network’s new director of sport, Tom Malone, has thrown the first grenade in the rugby league ratings war with Fox Sports, declaring: “Why would you pay for an inferior product when you can get the best product for free?”
Thursday night marks the beginning of the NRL season, in which 16 teams battle for the game’s ultimate prize. The fight for viewers will be just as fierce, with Fox Sports taking on the free-to-air broadcaster by simulcasting every game with its own in-house commentary team.
Fox has been aggressively spruiking the fact its coverage will be advert-free during play, while news that legendary caller Ray Warren could be retiring following this, his 50th season behind the microphone, may give Nine an edge when the rivals duke it out on the airwaves.
Fox made a cheeky attempt to poach Warren, but the undisputed voice of rugby league is committed to finishing his career at Nine. However, the pay-TV provider had a victory by signing Nine’s head of sport, Steve Crawley, with Malone filling the void.
Malone, the former executive producer of 60 Minutes, backed Nine’s coverage on the eve of the Parramatta-Brisbane season opener on Thursday night.
“Why would you pay for an inferior product when you can get the best product for free?” he said.
“That’s the very short answer. Channel Nine is the best place to watch rugby league, it goes to all Australian households and you get it for free.
“That’s why people are going to watch on Channel Nine. We’ve got the best callers, the best experts, the best innovation, the best cameramen. It’s such an incredible team that has been built up over decades.
“That’s why Wide World of Sports is the best place to watch rugby league.”
Told of Malone’s comments, a Fox Sports spokesman responded: “Fox Sports will be the only place fans can see every NRL game of every round, live and ad-break free in high definition. It’s the way sport should be, and for the first time in the NRL the way it will be.
“It’s going to be a massive year, and we can’t wait to get cracking.”
Fox’s decision to go head to head with Nine will cement a number of on-screen rivalries.
The Johns brothers, Matthew and Andrew, will be on opposite ends of the battle for the remote. Likewise, Fox’s Andrew Voss will go up against former Nine colleague Ray Hadley, after the pair fell out in a defamation spat that was settled out of court.
Both networks have been tinkering with their offerings before the new season. Peter Sterling will anchor Nine’s Thursday-night coverage, with Phil Gould and Andrew Johns joining Warren for the call.
Yvonne Sampson will host during Friday fixtures, with Paul Vautin re-joining the team for the Manly-Canterbury clash. Former Rooster Brad Fittler has been given his own camera and free rein to stalk the sidelines.
Fox will show all eight games per round, with exclusive rights to five of them. Its league talent includes Voss, Warren Smith, Matthew Johns, Matt Shirvington, Gorden Tallis, Nathan Hindmarsh, Bryan Fletcher, Ben Ikin, Mark Gasnier, Greg Alexander, Braith Anasta and Lara Pitt.
The stoush between the stations will not be confined to game days, with both upping the ante with their pre- and post-game coverage, plus other league programs during the week.
The networks have been in a chequebook war to sign the NRL’s biggest stars in the pursuit of exclusive content.
Warren has a job at Nine for as long as he wants it, but the man affectionately known as “Rabs” is predicting a swansong, sparking speculation over his successor.
“We’re using Matt Thompson and Ray Hadley, both great callers, and they are part of Nine’s plans going into the future,” Malone said.
“In terms of a formal succession plan, there isn’t one. But obviously we’re using other people so there are options.”