March 16, 2020 / 7:17 AM / 15 days ago

Rugby league-Australia's NRL mocked for government funding plea

MELBOURNE, March 16 (Reuters) - Australia’s National Rugby League has been pilloried by fans and media pundits for making a public plea for government funding as it grapples with the fall-out from the coronavirus.

The NRL, the most popular spectator sport in Australia’s eastern states, said on Sunday it faced “catastrophic” losses after being forced to ban fans from games following the first round of matches over the weekend.

Rugby League Commission chief Peter V’landys said: “The government has to assist us in this crisis because it is not of our doing. The game, as we know it, is in jeopardy.”

Although an avid NRL fan, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave short shrift to V’landys’ demand, which came just over two weeks after the league reported a A$30.1 million ($18.6 million) surplus for the 2018/19 financial year.

“The NRL is not high on the list at the moment,” Morrison told local radio station 2GB on Monday, listing hospitals, health workers and small business support as the government’s top priorities.

The coronavirus has infected over 160,000 people globally and killed more than 6,000.

Australia has recorded nearly 300 cases of coronavirus and authorities fear a rapid rise in infections.

Former New South Wales coach Phil Gould questioned how the NRL lacked reserves to weather the crisis after a decade marked by rising revenues and record broadcasting deals.

“We’ve got to learn from what we’ve done in the past and ask ourselves why we are so vulnerable as a code right at the moment,” Gould, a prominent rugby league broadcaster, said on Channel Nine’s ‘Today Show’.

The Australian Rugby League Commission set up a “sustainability fund” in 2014 under former chief executive Dave Smith and planned to have A$80 million invested by the end of 2017.

But the fund was liquidated in 2017, in part to help the NRL finance a costly digital strategy under current CEO Todd Greenberg.

The NRL did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment and details on their funding.

Greenberg bristled at a media conference on Monday when asked how the NRL found itself vulnerable.

“Of course, it’s going to be a catastrophic situation if 65 percent of your revenues aren’t paid,” he told reporters at the NRL’s Sydney headquarters.

“In any industry ... if the revenues don’t come into a business where your costs are fixed you’re going to have a problem.”

($1 = 1.6226 Australian dollars)

Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Christopher Cushing

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