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PACKER’S SHOCK SUPER POWER


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Twenty-five years ago today, Kerry Packer ended a bitter war but broke an old mate’s heart,

Hugh Marks had been legal counsel at Channel 9 for two years when he was called in to negotiate a deal that would rock the ARL.

Marks is the man who in April 2020, as Channel 9’s chief executive during the Covid-19 lockdown, attacked the NRL as bloated, called for clubs to be given more power and threatened that the sport’s long-time free-to-air broadcaster would walk away.

His comments led to the departure of CEO Todd Greenberg, and 23 years earlier the deal he did with Super League hastened Ken Arthurson’s exit from the game.

When Kerry Packer in 1995 insisted on enforcing a pay TV clause with the NSWRL even though he had no pay TV outlet, and threatened to “sue the pants” off any club that did business with News, the ARL went to war on his behalf.

Surely Packer wouldn’t then put Super League on his TV stations, would he? “I had heard the rumours on this but had defended our ‘allies’,” Arthurson wrote, perhaps insisting on the inverted commas with his coauthor Ian Heads. “‘Not when the chips are down, they won’t do it to us’, I had said to people who suggested that treachery was in the wind.”

Sure enough, on January 17 1997 it was announced Nine, until then the staunchest of ARL allies whose chiefs had handed out cheques at Phillip St like how-to-vote flyers at a polling booth, had taken a bet each way by signing a deal with the breakaway comp.

Monday Night Football would be the domain of Super League and shown on Nine.

“Ken felt betrayed,” Maurice Lindsay said.

Explaining their decision at the time, the channel stated: “We believe that the Nine Network telecasting the ARL and Super League will increase the prospect of a unified rugby league competition, which we believe to be in the interests of the public, viewers and all parties.

“If the Nine Network had not secured the rights, another network would have and this would have made the prospects of one competition remote.”

David Gallop, the youthful legal counsel for Super League, recalled: “I was there (at Nine’s Artarmon studios) with Hugh Marks … and I remember we were there until 1am doing the deal that meant Channel 9 would now cover Super League games.

“It was urgent enough that we stayed there until we got it done and it was at least one o’clock in the morning. I got a cab back over the Harbour Bridge with Tom (Mockridge, who was assistant CEO at News and went to Foxtel at the end of 1996).”

Arthurson looks grim, even today, when the episode is raised. He insists that there was no mention of Monday Night Football when James Packer called him, just that Nine was going to show Super League matches.

“It’s very, very clear in my memory and I was disappointed that Kerry hadn’t rang me personally because we’d had a good relationship over the best part of 20 years,’’ he said. “We always got on well and each of us had always honoured our agreements with the other.

“The phone rang and it was James, his son. He got James to ring me. I can always remember his words. He said ‘it gives me no pleasure to say what I’ve got to say to you now Ken’ and he told me they’d reached an agreement.

“I said to him ‘I can’t tell you how disappointed I am, James’. I said ‘you’ve let us down badly but in any case I at least expect you to honour the financial arrangements you’ve made over this (with us)’, which he did.

“James handled it as well as he could. It wasn’t news he wanted to give and it wasn’t news I wanted to hear.”

Super League marketing chief Gary Pearse said: “It showed the true colours of the media in regard to loyalty.

There was a war between the two of them and one of their generals had basically gone across straight away and bought the rights to the opposition.”

Super League CEO John Ribot said: “You could see a few cracks coming into negotiations (for the ARL). I really respected Kerry Packer.

With cricket and all those things he’s done, he was just a leader. Rupert said to me one day, when we did the deal (to launch Super League) … ‘this is going to be a very difficult thing to do here because Kerry Packer owns Sydney. I’m very well placed internationally, offshore and that, with a head office here in Sydney. This is going to be quite a battle’. But he said ‘geez, it’s going to be a lot of fun’.

“He shook my hand and walked out and I thought ‘bloody hell’.”

After Packer did a deal with Ribot, Arthurson effectively demanded (“offered the opinion” in his words) that Nine CEO David Leckie could no longer sit on the NSWRL board, and Leckie duly resigned. Between this moment and the release of his book many months later, Arthurson did not speak to anyone at Channel 9.

“Channel 9’s move dragged me down about as far as it was possible for a fundamentally positive person like myself to go,” he wrote.

South Sydney patriarch George Piggins wrote: “Business and the bottom line had won, and it was a huge disappointment. Kerry Packer had seemingly been rock solid with the ARL since the February meeting in 1995 and then suddenly, bang! And he’s over the fence.”

But true to form as a pragmatist-come-lately, ARL CEO Neil Whittaker was unfazed even by one of the most ruthless acts of the entire Super League War.

“There were a lot of disappointing things that happened,” Whittaker said.

“That each-way bet was disappointing but I just couldn’t allow it to distract me from getting the comp going and that’s what won us the outcome, the competition.

“James (Packer) was more worried about the discussion than I was. I don’t know who made the decision within their organisation but it was a decision he was very anxious about.

“I remember very clearly the meeting I had with James when he told me about it.

Things were so bad that my reaction to it was really surprising. He expected me, I think, to go off the planet over it. Arko and everyone, we’d got this far and we were about to start the comp and they’d taken the Super League rights.

“So I just said to James ‘it’s already done, you’ve told me you’re doing it, there’s nothing I can do so I’m just going to get up and walk out and get out of here and get on with something I can do something about’. And that’s what I did.

“A few years after the Super League war when you bump into James, I always had the feeling he respected the way I approached that meeting, that I saw it as a business decision they had to make. Everyone was making business decisions to suit their organisation. No one knew how it was going to go, everyone was placing bets.

“I’ve never spoken to James about it but I suspect that worked towards building the relationship that I had with him and I got on fairly well with Lachlan (Murdoch) as well. We had two youngish executives in the middle of it, caught up emotionally. One on either side, it wasn’t easy to manage.”

Ribot recalled: “The Americans had Monday Night Football and it became the family night for their game.

“We had a conference in Los Angeles with all the clubs from around the world (in December 1995) and we had keynote speakers and we all went down and saw San Diego on a Monday night. It was an unbelievably good night. Everyone enjoyed it, had a great time and I think … if you had the networks wanting to do it, and having seen it in America, I had no issues with that at all.”

But Shane Richardson believes the TV deal between Nine and Super League was much more than a TV deal. If not for Optus Vision and its combative CEO Geoffrey Cousins, Richardson believes, it would have been the beginning of the end of the fight.

“I’m sure Murdoch and Packer had come together and the real saviours of the ARL were Optus and Geoff Cousins,” Richardson said.

“He’s never got enough recognition for what he did to save the ARL. The same goes for (saving) the traditional clubs.”

And so as 1997 dawned, Super League had all the running. It looked like being the “juggernaut” it had promised to be. But the competition hit choppy waters when Nine conceded it could not contractually televise the opening game of the breakaway’s season – between Canberra and Cronulla – on a Friday.

Its arrangement with the ARL precluded it showing any other competition on that day of the week, so the kick-off of the new league was put back a day (Brisbane v Auckland at ANZ Stadium) and the Raiders-Sharks game moved to Monday at the Sydney Football Stadium.

But in a sign of the game’s malaise at the time, Nine did not judge either competition worthy of live prime-time coverage. MNF and the ARL’s Friday night match were kicked back to a delayed 9.30 timeslot; cop drama Water Rats was considered a stronger ratings bet at 8.30, while Friends and the Lotto draw also aired while the matches were being played.

Heads wrote: “From the beginning, the struggle has been about hidden agendas unconnected with the game at the heart of it.

“The two sides have just got to hope there are enough people around who still care.”

And after a significant body blow to the ARL, Arthurson made comments that led the public to think he was heading the way of former ARL boss John Quayle – out the door.

“I would have bet my life on Nine standing by us but I guess I’m naive. I’m bitterly disappointed,’’ he said. “When all this started and we were approached by News, we told them we would not, and could not, do what they were asking because we had a legal and moral obligation to Nine.

“I’ve been friends with Kerry Packer for a lot of years and I vividly remember being at the International Sevens in February 1995 when he gave me an assurance that he would not make any deal with News without coming to me and getting the approval of the ARL.

“If they are going to reach an agreement now, the Packer and Murdoch families, why the hell didn’t they reach that agreement in the first place without putting us all through this trauma we’ve been through the last two years? “It certainly would have added a few years to my life.”

Ribot, in the same story, said: “If we can enhance the product, while there’s a coming together of the parties, then that’s good for the game and it’s good for Super League.”

Another alliance seen as unholy in many circles was Saturday Super League on the publicly owned ABC.

“There was a friend of mine called Gerry O’Leary who pursued the rights,” journalist and presenter Debbie Spillane said. “She was acting head of sport at the time.

“She was a mad rugby league fan. She still doesn’t get much kudos. She was the first woman to be producer of ABC live rugby league.

“She told them what Super League needs more than anything is national coverage but coverage with a traditional base, some cred.

“She put a good argument: we can’t afford to give you any money for it but … “A lot of people were disgusted with the ABC for that. Those people were mainly from NSW and Queensland. But we were always getting tackled by the ABC board because rugby league wasn’t a national sport and it was the national broadcaster.

“So Super League (with a wider geographic spread) fitted the ABC criteria a lot better than the ARL had. She talked (Ian) Frykberg into the deal and then she gave me the job of fronting it. She impressed Frykberg so much they offered her a job at Fox Sports.”

“Aunty” broadcasting Super League was targeted on the ABC’s Media Watch program. Spillane’s dual roles with a club – she was Bulldogs PR – and on the coverage, was highlighted as a potential conflict of interest.

January started with a game divided. Early in the new year, Whittaker told the Sydney Morning Herald: “We’ve got to accept there are too many teams in Sydney.”

At the time, there were 11: Cronulla, Manly, North Sydney, Parramatta, Penrith, the Bulldogs (then known as Sydney Bulldogs), the Roosters (then known as Sydney City Roosters), the Tigers (then known as Sydney Tigers), South Sydney, St George and Western Suburbs.

Talk of cutting the number of teams in Sydney is nothing new. When Illawarra and Canberra joined in 1982, it had not been referred to as “expansion” but “decentralisation”.

The news cycle trundled along. Players outside each club’s top 20 in Super League were told they’d have to pay their own medical insurance, a backflip on a previous understanding.

And Super League’s plan of “clean skin”, or sponsorless, jerseys was abandoned after a threat by Dominion Breweries to sue the Auckland Warriors for breach of contract if they were removed. In England, David Howes resigned as a director of the RFL.

Canberra announced plans to float the Raiders on the stock market. At a mid-month media conference in Brisbane, senator Graham Richardson predicted a united competition in 1998.

And, inevitably, on the evening of January 22, Ken Arthurson resigned, along with executives Greg Mitchell and Graeme Foster.

Arthurson had intended to stand down only as NSWRL chairman and stay on with the ARL, but concluded that resigning twice was more than he could bear.

“I don’t know what the scoreboard will say,” Arthurson mused at the time.

“I hope it says ‘he gave the game his best shot. He never sold the game out.’ “Super League kept talking about a partnership. But what they really meant was a twotier system where News Ltd ran the elite tier of top clubs and we looked after juniors, referees and ran coaching courses.”

Mitchell now says his own decision was taken earlier, in response to the departure of close friend Quayle.

“When I knew that he was going .. to SOCOG (Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympics) with Michael Knight recruiting him, the minister in charge of SOCOG, I had a meeting with John. I said ‘if you’re going, I think I might move on.’” he said.

Quayle helped Mitchell get a job at the Australian Rugby Union.

Arthurson’s resignation was to take effect the day Super League was scheduled to kick off, February 28.

Perhaps unlike his friend Quayle, Arthurson has let the circumstances surrounding his departure from Phillip St fade with the passing years.

The betrayal by Channel 9 hurt at the time, but not now.

“I’d always said that I was looking forward to retiring when I turned 65. I’d said that since I was 40,” he said.

“I’d reached 67, John had gone and I thought probably the time had come for a fresh start and to have some fresh points of view in there. That influenced my decision, very much so. One, I thought probably it was in the best interest of the game to have a fresh start take over and also I missed the fact I wouldn’t be working with John.

“I only went to 67 because I hung on because of the Super League War.”

Having lamented that Packer and Murdoch had taken years off his life, Arthurson moved to the Gold Coast and set about getting them back.

The relationship between Ribot and Arthurson is a touching and compelling one.

It was Arthurson who separated Ribot and Quayle at Phillip St in 1994 when the latter confronted the former about rumours of a rebel competition.

Ribot had an almost visceral understanding of how hurt his friend had been by Nine’s betrayal. Like Quayle, there was an old-world code to the way Arthurson saw the world and did business. That code had been eviscerated.

“If you went into Ken’s office … a bit of an insight into why he would have been taken aback by that … there was a photo behind his desk, on the wall, of him and Kerry Packer shaking hands.

“I think they both had their arms around each other.

It was a really nice photo.

“When it all went a bit pear-shaped, I said to him once ‘you see Kerry as a good friend of yours. He’s a businessman and he’ll make business decisions. It will be interesting to see where this goes. If he sees an opportunity, he’s going to go for it’. I think that probably highlighted it to Ken.”

Cousins was unconcerned by the change in the balance of power in free-to-air TV.

Whatever Packer and Murdoch did, he knew he still held the cards.

“I wasn’t ... surprised about Kerry hedging his bets,” he said. “That’s what he’d done with Rupert all his life. He was a bit in awe ... of Rupert.”

Tom Mockridge summed up Nine’s “deal with the devil” simply: “It was part of the peace plan.”

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