Inside Nine’s eye-watering NRL $925m deal

NEC’s Amanda Laing on how she closed the NRL sports rights sale of the century

By James Manning

When it comes to major contract negotiations, the Nine Entertainment Co calls on the skills of its commercial director and group general counsel Amanda Laing. In recent times Laing looked after the current deal with Cricket Australia for $500m for broadcast rights and helped hammer out the current NRL $500m deal which still has over two years to run.

Laing caught many by surprise this week when she and her Nine negotiating team revealed they had concluded a deal with the NRL for broadcast rights for FTA TV and digital for four games of every NRL round from 2018 through until 2022.

Laing has been working on the new NRL deal for some time, noting that the NRL chief executive Dave Smith said much earlier this year they were starting the process for broadcast rights. “Everyone was a bit surprised because it was a fairly long time before the expiry of the current round of rights. At that point we started general discussions with the NRL about what they would be looking for. Since May we have had some form of negotiation, but in the last couple of weeks they intensified dramatically.

“Prior to the last couple of weeks we were talking about what would be Nine’s ideal number of games, when we wanted them to be, what were the best slots – conducting an analysis. We were trying to understand what others might want and trying to better understand what the NRL wanted to achieve in this next round of rights.

“In the last agreement the NRL had their hands tied somewhat because there was a first and last rights agreement. This was the first time for some time that the NRL could have control of a contract. What the NRL could put to market, and the way they could structure the game, the slots etc – their hands were tied previously.

The NRL wanted a modern contract and they want a modern game for 2018.

As to how Nine felt about doing the deal early, Laing noted Nine really had no control over that. “The NRL announced they were starting a process. You’ve either got to be in the discussions or risk losing the rights.” Laing agreed that if you really want to pursue the rights, you must go hard once the negotiations are under way.

The NRL’s Smith admitted the morning of the Nine announcement that they might have been able to get a higher fee from breaking up the rights and getting as much money as they could for the State of Origin as a standalone package. However the NRL was more focused on an overall deal for everything they had available. Laing said that attitude was helpful to Nine. “We wanted it all. We didn’t want just State of Origin or the Pacific Test or just the international test matches. As we are with cricket, we want to be the home of NRL. And you can’t be the home of NRL if you have the weekly matches, but not the State of Origin, or the weekly matches, but not the Grand Final. You have to have everything.”

Laing said the NRL suggested to Nine they were looking to sell four FTA games that would be shown live every week. “It was what they felt they needed for the future of the game. That gets reflected in the price, going from three games over two slots to four games over four slots. Given that’s what they needed and wanted, we think it is great for fans to have that much live and free. We want to give fans the best possible coverage and the best possible experience.”

As Nine was getting closer to an agreement with the NRL, Laing said there were a number of late nights where negotiations finished somewhere between 2am and 5am. “Then we were back at 8.30am around the table. The pragmatic approach, the levelheadedness and the manner in which the negotiations were conducted is a credit to all involved because they were very tough negotiations. The NRL team and ours were working hard to try to get a deal done. It was all very professional from an experienced bunch of people.”

Laing said Nine was not troubled by the NRL taking complete responsibility for the schedule from 2018. “It is a mind-bogglingly complex process and we are very confident we will get the four best games. It means that the way we get to that each year will just be a little bit different.”

Nine and the NRL are after the same outcome. “The teams, the NRL and Nine are completely aligned with wanting the biggest ratings for the best games on free-to-air television.”

Laing also noted the NRL came to Nine wanting one State of Origin game on a Sunday from 2018. “The Wednesdays have always suited us fine,” said Laing. “Nine CEO David Gyngell was quoted earlier this year saying ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’ We are happy with Wednesdays, but if it is going to be Wednesday, Sunday, Wednesday we are very comfortable with that as well.”

The NRL has not asked Nine to provide any more supporting programming around the code. “There is nothing mandated from the NRL – it will be up to us. They love what we are doing, The Footy Show is fantastic. With more football we may well decide to do more footy-related programming. But that will be a decision for two years from now.

Laing didn’t have an opinion about building ratings in states outside of New South Wales and Queensland, but she noted that with four live games every week, the ratings may well grow in other markets. Nine will show all games live nationally, but it was still too early to know where they will show them.

Despite Nine being in and out of court last week with Seven over format theft claims relating to The Hotplate, Laing said she had been focusing almost solely on this NRL outcome.

“There are lots of other sporting rights opportunities we need to look at.”

Laing wouldn’t be drawn on the AFL rights negotiations, but she did say that she was almost as familiar with AFL broadcast rights as she is with NRL.

>> The women of League

Four women and one man managed to close the FTA TV segment of the new NRL rights deal.

Amanda Laing
NEC commercial director

Rachel Launders
NEC general counsel

Eleni North – NRL general counsel

Kate Jordan – partner Clayton Utz

Andrew Fraser
NRL director of strategy

>> Still to be sorted

Where will Nine show the games?

On Gem or GO! and in HD if on Gem? There are regulatory moves under way to try to secure HD bandwidth for FTA TV that could ensure, regardless of what channel sport is on in the future, it will be possible to screen it in HD.

Nine has had great success with the Ashes cricket on Gem this year and despite Australia’s poor form, they still have set several multichannel audience records. Laing: “The lesson to be learned from the Ashes is that it shows people know where Gem is and they will find it to watch good sport.”

Can Fox Sports simulcast those Nine games?

They could if they reach an agreement with the NRL, with some or all of that streaming money a third party pays cutting the fee Nine pays for that game. Laing: “If our games are simulcast on a pay platform the contract deals with that scenario. We obviously love having our games completely exclusive with nowhere else to see them, but we have to be realistic about the future and we realise our games may be simulcast on a pay platform and we had to come to terms with that.”

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