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NRL Round Table: NRL in turmoil

The NRL will be played in empty stadiums in round two with clubs advised to comply with government advice to ban large gatherings from Monday. Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

Each week, ESPN's NRL experts Darren Arthur and Christian D'Aloia take on the burning issues in the game.

Should the NRL be reconfigured and if so, what should that look like?

Darren: With the competition in financial difficulties and several clubs under the pump to survive, it is a bit of a mystery exactly what the NRL will look like when it finally returns. There have been suggestions that a 12 team competition would be more manageable. That means four current clubs and all their players and staff will be have to be shown the door. It would be a move that would surely end up back in the courts in an ugly repeat of the Rabbitohs' survival story. Rugby league is an emotional game and people have ties to teams that run very deep. To tell a lifelong fan that their team has to go for the betterment of the competition is an argument you will never win - just ask a North Sydney Bears fan. If teams are to go, it needs to be with fair warning and only after they fail to meet a strict set of criteria. Drop the four least financially viable teams and move on - sounds easy enough.

Christian: Reconfiguring the NRL has been a hot topic of discussion in rugby league circles for many years, although they have typically taken place for the purpose of increasing revenue rather than cutting costs. In this unique scenario where every penny saved could mean salvaging the NRL, I urge Peter V'Landys and Todd Greenberg to look elsewhere before culling clubs. The removal of the infamous NRL Bunker, the reduction of clubs' football department budgets and the shrinking of the current salary cap are just a few options that would be far more optimal. Each club offers significant value to the quality of the competition as a whole, and removing any of them would drive fans away by the thousands. However, in the case that saving all 16 clubs is simply not possible, I do agree that the least financially viable clubs should be the ones to be let go (or merged) if we are ever to reach a point of true financial stability as a game.

Do players have a right to be bitter about the NRL's financial management?

Darren: Some incredible revelations have come to light during the past week. That the NRL spends around $180 million a year on running the game is jaw-dropping. That they have dipped into the players' superannuation for funding is even more staggering. Rugby league has spiralled out of control, with too many people trying to take too big a slice of what is ultimately a limited pie. The massive broadcast deals have created a false sense of financial abundance, allowing inflated salaries and a dangerous disregard for the real bread and butter of the game, the family sitting in the stands. While someone like Daly Cherry-Evans can't expect to receive his full $1million for this season, under the current circumstances, he is entitled to be angry at the depth of the cut he faces thanks largely to mismanagement.

Christian: As news continues to emerge of the NRL's gross financial mismanagement, I can certainly sympathise with the players who signed contracts in the expectation that they would receive the full amount promised to them. This is especially true after news emerged of the NBA's intention to cut the salaries of its top executives by 20%, with a possibility of player salaries being reduced by 1.08% in the event that the league invokes the 'Force Majeure Event" clause of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. If pay cuts do occur in the NRL, I believe executives and players should be treated equally. In many ways, the COVID-19 outbreak is the great equalizer. Many Australians on far lower incomes are losing work due to the coronavirus and NRL players are not and should not be an exception. If NRL players are required to accept cuts to their exorbitant salaries due to this terrible unforeseen circumstance, then so be it.

Is a severely shortened season better than abandoning 2020 completely?

Darren: With Prime Minister Scott Morrison continually suggesting it could take six months or more to ride out this pandemic, it seems very optimistic to think that the NRL can get back on the field for any meaningful amount of time. A willingness to play into December seems admirable until you consider the heat the players would be subjected to. Desperate to salvage any payments they can from the broadcasters, the NRL will do everything in its power to somehow finish off the 2020 season. I think they might be best letting everyone know as early as possible that they should just start preparing for a full 2021 season.

Christian: Personally, I don't believe that a significantly shortened season played in far different circumstances will hold much weight in the minds of fans. In fact, I can imagine fans claiming that the eventual premiers' success simply did not mean as much, with all future discussions of the 2020 season having an asterisk attached to it. However, I do think that any rugby league is good rugby league, and if playing games in 2020 means more revenue for the NRL, then by all means play as many games as possible.