A key case study in Murdoch's involvement in sport, underlining the
apocalyptic views of the culturalists - and the sports fan - is surely
the way he has exerted a stranglehold on the two codes of rugby.
Despite the cultural discourse, the media analysts and business
press rarely considers sport as a cultural activity but as a product.
Yet consider the impact of "SuperLeague" in Australia.
Murdoch's News Limited in Australia became convinced Rugby League,
based on twin (local and complementary) leagues in both New South
Wales and Queensland, was a sport which could generate pay-TV
It arrived at this conclusion following discussions with the
Brisbane Broncos, a private 'franchise' club - which allowed the NSWRL
to adopt a 'national' league format, to the detriment of the
Ken Cowley, head of News Limited's Australian operations insisted
that that if they were going to spend A$60m on rugby league, as
proposed; "News Limited wanted some control over the game" (Nauright
and Phillips, 1997).
Super League was based not on the traditional, fan led, model of
club ownership traditional in Australian sports, but instead private,
US style run-for-profit franchises with fewer teams - each being
granted territorial rights - and market zones. In addition for such
exclusivity, league-wide merchandising deals and advertisement
revenues were pooled through joint marketing arrangements. Indeed the
Super League concept was seen as being spread globally with Rugby
League being similarly remodelled in other countires (most notably
Britain and 'Europe' with the establishment of a team in Paris) and
the sport being heavily marketed where it was not presently being
The results have been bitterly opposed by fans world wide, not
least in Australia where supporters were used to exercising democratic
control and participating in social activities organised around the
sports club itself.
In terms of the impact on the sport, 'civil war' would be a cliched
term which, in this instance would not be misplaced.
The ARL (formerly the NSWRL, which itself had trampled on its
Queensland 'sister' league) and Murdoch's bete noire Kerry
Packer stoutly opposed the setting up of Super League. Murdoch however
launched on a strategy of signing clubs, players, officials, coaches
and referees as possible, including those in England and New Zealand,
effectively controlling international fixtures.
The net result was a bloody court battle. As the Nauright and
Phillips (1997) paper states;
"The fight...pitted player against player, club against
club, city against city, state against state, country against
country, pay-television opertor against pay-television operator,
phone company against phone company, and media mogul against media
Interestingly the authors do not claim the result was to pit fan
against fan: Rowe (1997) describes the impact on the sport as
"cataclysmic" - at one stage the Australian Courts outlawed
Super League players (branded as "rebels" against Packer's
"loyalists" by Packer: ironic with it coming from the man
who almost split cricket in two during the 1970s with the Cricket
An inevitable phase of rival leagues came to being but the game was
irreversibly changed. Players who had spent their careers together on
the Australian national team found themselves divided by accusations
of dishonour and greed. Dismal TV ratings and attendance figures soon
became the norm in both leagues, whilst team expenses soared.
Prior to that the Australian Court found that News Limited had been
guilty of "deceit, dishonesty and duplicity" with a
"meticulously planned operation, involving secrecy, suddenness
Despite the ARL (and Packer's) attempts to persuade the fans that
they were the custodians of the sport, Murdoch and Packer met on the
former's yacht and hatched a compromise deal which "shocked"
the ARL's chair - who resigned, as well as the fans. Rowe (1997)
comments "All the ARL's and Packer's rhetoric about the people's
game, loyalty and tradition was ultimately subordinated by individual
Almost as soon as the yacht deal was brokered, News Limited
contacted various senior figures in Australian Rugby Union to, in the
words of Business Week (September 11 1995) "reassure" them
that Murdoch was ready to enter Rugby Union too.
The report suggests "It was as if Murdoch had created a
distraction with Super League...while he was garnering even more money
for rugby union, an international code with wider appeal".
Business Week reports that "when those first News Ltd calls
came in April (of 1996), rugby union literally had nothing to
sell" but less than a month later Australia annnounced the end of
amateurism and shortly after, the competition schedules of Australia,
New Zealand and South Africa had been torn apart and restructured into
a package of southern hemisphere competitions.
Just four days after the rugby unions of the southern hemisphere
had met Sam Chisholm, a new governing body SANZAR had been formed, six
weeks after that Murdoch agreed to pay US$50m over 10 years for
exclusive world rights to all rugby in those three countries.
As with rugby league, capturing Union as a global sport is what
drove Murdoch. In June Murdoch's final phase of his master plan almost
split the northern hemisphere game in two, and the reverberations
continue to this very day, even whilst he begins to turn his
attentions to the next phase of his plans to exert control over
In June 1996, the Rugby Football Union - the governing body in
England - stunned the rugby world by announcing they had signed a
unilateral ten year £87.5m deal with Sky TV, encompassing the Five
Nations championship - one of the oldest and most famous sporting
tournaments in the world. The deal went completely against the
previous, long establishhed tradition of the four home unions (France
having always had a separate TV deal since they were admitted into the
tournament) negotiating and agreeing joint rights.
The three remaining nations were furious. After attempts to
compromise England were expelled from the Five Nations, signalling the
demise - amongst other fixtures - of the Calcutta Cup, the sport's
oldest fixture held between England and Scotland.
Murdoch's strategy became clear - to increase the number of
fixtures between England and the Southern Hemisphere nations, at all
levels of the game, and, for the international fixtures at least,
offer a pay-per-view 'service' (though this element of the deal was
not to surface until twelve months later).
Naturally the row became global. The Daily Telegraph (25th July
1996) reported the row as an event which also neatly crystallised the
impact and intentions of Murdoch on the sport;
"The row which has culminated in England's expulsion from
the championship does not stop in Britain and Ireland. Senior
officials in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand have been told
that if they come to England's rescue by finding a slot for them in
an expanded Tri-Nation series, there will be no Lions tours to those
Much as the southern hemisphere countries relish their 10-year,
£362 million deal with satellite television, they dearly want
incoming tours, especially from the British Lions. They add
much-needed variety to a calendar of mind-numbing similarity. Next
month South Africa have Tests on five successive Saturdays, four of
them against New Zealand."
August 29th: The Independent reported that "Representatives
from Scotland, Ireland and Wales yesterday stood back from the
brink...[it was] the first suggestion that...their own situation is
far from strong...Many consider the the moral high ground to be theirs
but...every commercial argument favours England."
The eventual compromise was brokered largely on the basis not of
right and wrong but commercial expediency: The owner of club side
Saracens, Nigel Wray, remarked - "I do not think there is much
interest in watching Ireland play Wales or Scotland...the rest of the
world likes bashing England"
Before a compromise was reached however, the sport faced turmoil
from a different angle - leading clubs decided they would like to form
a Premiership-type league and breakaway from the RFU. The row led to
England players - promised more cash under the breakaway deal -
boycotting training sessions in a manner reminiscent of the conflicts
which have emerged in all major US sports in recent years.
The Five Nations issue was resolved in September of 1996 - though
as can be seen now, this proved to be only temporary - Jim Telfer,
Scotland rugby union's director of football remarked as a compromise
was reached "England bring so much to the Five Nations - they are
the country everybody wants to beat. To be honest, Wales, Ireland and
Scotland need England more than they need us."
The breakaway still threatened to overshadow Sky TV's deal. In
September Sky threatened to walk away from their England deal if the
RFU are unable to field their top players in internationals.
In October 1996 Sky refused to deal with the breakaway clubs
"It is simply not in Sky's interest" says Sky TV's Sam
Chisholm, who repeats threats to pull out of Rugby unless the clubs
pull back from breaking away.
Ultimately, the clubs opted to fall back in line with the RFU, not
least because of the lucrative club level deal based around the new
European Cup competition. Whilst the deal to secure club rugby
tightened Murdoch's grip on the game still further, terrestrial
television now no longer broadcasts club rugby union regularly - the
BBC deciding to drop Sunday's traditional Rugby Special after 31
One former BBC rugby correspondent said: "I think part of the
reason that Rugby Special has been dropped is that the BBC always saw
it as a loss-leader, a sop to the RFU and the other unions, ensuring
that they got international matches live.
"But if that part of the deal has gone down, the BBC has
probably reasoned: why should we help to promote club rugby for the
RFU if they have sold off the crown jewels to someone else?"
There are a number of points which emerge from this chaos;
- In March 1997, Sky announced England's home Five Nations games
would be held on Sunday not on the traditional Saturday - much to
the dismay of match going supporters who always (and famously)
viewed the Saturday internationals as a great social occasion
- England lost three of its major sponsors, at least one - Save
and Prosper - as a direct and publicly stated result of Sky's
involvement in the sport and uncertainty over kick-off times
- As has become clear subsequently, rugby union has over extended
itself in the initial period of professionalism. A number of clubs
- Bath being the prime example - found themselves with heavy
debts. Newcastle, a club 'launched' in a blaze of publicity by
magnate Sir John Hall, now face an uncertain future
- One upshot of this is a further restructuring of the English
game. The threat of the implications of this has persuaded a
second division side to literally buy out a first division side
and rename it
Furthermore, as stated, recent news coverage has brought the
conflict and Sky's TV deal back to the fore. Receiving less coverage
were recent reports that over a century of another tradition: that of
the sport as a winter game, was about to end. If England were too big
to be expelled from the Five Nations they are not too big to be able
to dictate world rugby to the South.
Murdoch envisages a March to November international season,
complete with "global play offs" between Five and
Tri-nations competitions (Observer 20th December 1998).
The RFU's rugby director, Don Rutherford said "I can see that
happening...and the change is not as far away as the traditionalists
may think. Never underestimate the power of television"
Irrespective of how rugby deals with the Murdoch whirlwind it is
clear that if you want to watch live rugby matches on TV - with a few
notable exceptions - you must be a Sky subscriber to do so.
In conclusion, the above case study suggests that sports
associations and governing bodies have structures ill equipped to deal
with the dramatic changes which result from the involvement in sport
of media companies such as those owned and controlled by Murdoch.
Governments meanwhile have been fearful of challenging the likes of
Murdoch head on.
It is purely in coping with the fragmentation of television
audiences that the interest in sports shown by media companies has
emerged, hence the decline in audiences coinciding with a rise in
television revenues. Rugby has undoubtedly struggled to come to terms
with Murdoch and it remains a paradox that globalisation threatens to
destroy the very reasons behind the media companies interest in
sports. But as Williams (1994) points out;
" Sport's one, but important saving grace is that the joys
of performance..still have the ability to transcend the
commodification of sport. To watch great soccer players at their
inspired best - Giggs, Baggio, Romario, Cantona - is to be reminded,
if only temporarily, that sport is not simply a product but a
But it is with a view of Murdoch and sport with which we conclude.
The Washington Post's columnist Thomas Boswell commented, we feel,
"The question that has hung over baseball for twenty years
has always been the same. What happens if the game ever gets an
owner who is utetrly shameless, totally amoral and absurdly rich? If
the [Kevin] Brown signing works out as badly as it should, then we
may find out if Rupert Murdoch is that owner."