The NRL could have lost more than $10 million in potential sponsorships during the off-season alone as the reputational hit from player behaviour strips revenue from clubs.
All of the teams spoken to by The Sun-Herald about the fallout resulting from behavioural issues said sponsors had been spooked by the Ben Barba and Jack de Belin incidents and new business was increasingly difficult to come by as the sagas threatened to drag on throughout the season.
Stirring up public opinion: Jack de Belin leaves court in Wollongong. Credit:Adam Mclean.
South Sydney chief executive Blake Solly estimated the damage at "north of $10 million" and said attracting new corporate dollars to the table was becoming a slog.
"It's been more difficult to attract new sponsors," he said. "It's slightly easier to retain existing sponsors because they see all the positives about the sport because they're already in it; they can see 95 per cent of the players in the game are fantastic and great role models.
"Clubs take a lot of players from difficult environments and challenged youths and they become great people with careers, home owners, family men. Existing sponsors know that and understand what we mean to the community we're in and continue to support it.
"New sponsors are the ones who feel that rugby league at the moment is too big a risk for them."
Titans chairman Dennis Watt said the NRL's Net Promoter Score (NSP), a measure of a company's relationship with its consumers, had dipped 13 points, which equated to about $6.5 million in revenue being left at the gate.
"It all goes to the brand," Watt said. "In this last little while, it’s dropped by 13 points. A point is apparently equivalent to $500,000. That’s us measured against soccer, the AFL and the rest.
"When you are talking about 13 points at $500,000 a point, that’s $6.5 million lost to the game in potential sponsorship. Clubs are saying they are on the verge of signing major sponsors and sponsors are walking away because of the stench around rugby league.
"That’s simply unfair for the vast majority of people in the game; it’s not a true reflection because it’s a tiny minority. And some of those cases obviously have to be adjudicated by courts."
Hard evidence: Damning CCTV footage forced the NRL’s hand when it came to the Ben Barba situation.Credit:Michele Mossop
Canberra chief executive Don Furner said the club had some solid sponsorships in place but would dread to be going to market for a new major signing given the current predicament of the league.
"We're OK but I'd hate to be looking for a couple of major sponsors right now. It would be a very hard sell," Furner said.
"The other thing is apart from all the off-field troubles, there are so many opportunities now compared to say 10 or 15 years ago. It used to be maybe cricket, NRL and AFL. Now there's a women's team in every code as well, [and] basketball, netball."
Furner said it was not uncommon for major sponsors to insert clauses where they can walk away from any big deals if a player brought their company into disrepute.
Watt said there could be even more longer-term financial pain unless the NRL altered the perceptions about portions of its playing group.
"As a game, when we get through this broadcast rights period, we don’t know where our next feed is coming from," Watt said. "We don’t know what the future is on that front.
"Nobody can guarantee the same level of funding will be forthcoming. The world of broadcasting is changing dramatically."
Wests Tigers chair Marina Go said the NRL should reflect community standards even if it meant sidelining players during court proceedings, citing a Herald poll that was overwhelmingly in favour of the standing down of the accused.
“That is the corporate standard. You look at teachers. A teacher accused of an incident of being inappropriate is immediately stood down. That is the community expectation.
“Peter Fitzsimons from your paper ran a poll asking people whether the player should be stood down or not … it was running at 86 per cent. That is massive. That tells you everything; we need to listen to community expectations.”
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