A magnate's sphere of influence: AUSTRALIA

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The Independent Online
IF THERE were any lingering doubts about the profitability of pay TV, they would have been comprehensively dispelled by Rupert Murdoch's raid on Australian rugby league.

With a population of only 17 million - many of whom, because of their remoteness, cannot receive satellite and cable transmissions - Australia would seem small fry in the global communications ocean.

Yet, at the last count, Murdoch had committed an estimated $A300m (£150m) to his Australian Super League concept. To the fan in the street it seems like madness; to Murdoch, however, it is a tried and tested method.

His experience in Britain taught him that only one big pay TV network would be likely to survive in a market the size of Australia. His experience throughout the world taught him that that network would be the one which delivered sport and, more specifically, an important football code.

In Australia, however, Murdoch faced a formidable stumbling block to his plans. The TV rights to rugby league, both free-to-air and pay, were held until the turn of the century by someone else. And the fact that that someone else was Kerry Packer, who was aligned with a rival pay-TV consortium, meant the obstacle was even greater.

The obvious parallel has been drawn between Murdoch's Super League proposals and Packer's raid on international cricket in 1977. But the two coups differ in one important respect. Murdoch initially tried to gain the Australian Rugby League's approval for, and involvement in, Super League. It was only when his representatives were shown the door by the ARL at a meeting last February that the News Corporation gloves came off.

News Corp's executives launched a series of secret recruiting raids on rugby league's elite players, who were told that if they signed a Super League contract within the hour they would receive a substantial cash bonus; if they wavered, the bonus offer would be withdrawn.

After years of having their earnings depressed by a salary cap system, it was hardly surprising that many of Australia's leading players took the bait. The prize booty safely stashed away, News Corp then started selling the idea to the Aussie public.

A series of TV ads, featuring the Super League's star captures, is now extolling the virtues of the new competition. Curiously, the ads are being shown on Kerry Packer's Channel Nine station. There may be a war on, but business is business.