Matt Williams: Rugby must not suck on the poison of Pay TV

Australian rugby went behind a paywall 25 years ago, and is now reaping the whirlwind

Once upon a time, every rugby team on the planet possessed a Magical Sponge.

The magic sponge could mystically transform humble tapwater into a fluid with unimaginable recuperative powers.

These magic sponges could fix everything from a bleeding eyebrow to restoring the seemingly dead back to life.

Every team had a “Lazarus”. A player who in every match he played would dramatically fling his lifeless form across the grass. As he lay motionless, his mother would start to weep in the grandstand. The dramatics ran in the family.


Miraculously, after a few wipes of the magic sponge, life gushed back into the recently departed. Like James Brown at the end of big set, he would be helped to his feet, then stoically wobble off to join the waiting scrum, his mum cheering as she wiped away her tears. While his teammates rolled their collective eyes.

The magic sponge’s amazing gift was not only that it could staunch gushing blood from the deepest of gashes, or wipe mud from blinded eyes, but also, unbelievably, it could accomplish all of these tasks on one single trip onto the field.

Blood, water, grass, dirt, sweat and heaven knows what other bodily fluids were slopped into the bucket. All the germs, viruses and bacteria were sloshed around and soaked up by the sponge. The sodden sponge was then held to multiple mouths that eagerly sucked down the concoction into parched throats. Blood, grass, sweat and all.

Now, here is the mystical part of the magic sponge. To my knowledge, over the generations who sucked deeply on these sponges, nobody appears to have been killed by its horrendously poxy waters.

If the sponge was applied in a match today, litigation would shortly follow. The ignorance of our past actions is shocking.

Twenty-five years ago, at the same time when players were still inhaling water from magic sponges, Australian rugby went behind a TV paywall.

The magic sponge of rugby behind a paywall was put to our lips and we sucked it deep into our gullets

In 1995 the still-amateur Australian Rugby was fighting a hostile corporate raider, who planned on contracting Australia’s elite rugby players, with no care for the clubs or grass roots.

Pay television was in its infancy and offered rugby a financial lifeline to counter the takeover. I was involved and I know that those in governance of Australian rugby had zero options.

In the depths of the crisis that had engulfed world rugby after the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the cash from Pay TV saved Australian rugby and triggered rugby’s journey to professionalism.

The magic sponge of rugby behind a paywall was put to our lips and we sucked it deep into our gullets. If only we knew the consequences of those actions.

In the short term, the money was good. Like that first slosh of water, it was reviving. Then, as time moved on, the unseen poison we had sucked up by putting our beloved game behind a paywall began to reveal itself.

It’s pretty simple: kids stopped falling in love with the game because they could not watch their heroes.

In a vicious circle, if kids don’t fall in love with rugby, when they grow up and earn money they don’t buy pay TV to watch rugby. They also don’t buy tickets to games and neither do their kids. The relationship is broken.

After 25 years trapped behind a paywall, the commercial market for rugby in Australia has collapsed

Australian rugby is proof of this cycle. Boys’ junior clubs, school teams, bums on seats at Super rugby and international matches – all have haemorrhaged numbers. Like a business that goes bankrupt, it started slowly at first, then it accelerated, astonishingly quickly.

Twenty years ago when I coached the Waratahs, we averaged 25,000 at our games. Last year my beloved Waratahs averaged 7,000. Today the Wallabies seldom fill their stadiums and if they do it is by relying on travelling New Zealanders to take a significant proportion of the tickets.

After 25 years trapped behind a paywall, the commercial market for rugby in Australia has collapsed. Rugby Australia is fighting desperately to get the game back to free-to-air while at the same time attempting to increase its meagre income. The game needs more than its true believers to survive.

In 2003, Australian Rugby dominated the sports market and had over $20 million in the bank. It was unthinkable that rugby in Australia could descend to its current desperate state: financially crippled, and with dwindling crowds. The leaders of the game in Australia are left with the impossible task of trying to find a path that fosters the growth of the game, empowers the supporters and inspires our children, all with smashed finances. An impossible task and a diabolical situation.

The highest price in the short term is not always the best option for the longevity of the rugby business

Those negotiating the future of the Six Nations would do well to look at the Australian experience with deep consideration and understand that if they suck on a magic sponge, the impossible can happen in the northern hemisphere.

Currently, the Six Nations is the greatest rugby tournament on earth. It continues to inspire our youth to participate in our game, and the Championship is adored by the wider community outside of rugby because they can watch it freely.

Rugby in the northern hemisphere is strong and not in a crisis, as it was in Australia in 1995. The Six Nations have choices and must consider that the highest price in the short term is not always the best option for the longevity of the rugby business.

Why choose to suck on a dirty sponge when the consequences for others, who have done just that, have been so catastrophic?