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Sunday Age

Eye of the Storm

Author: IAN COCKERILL
Date: 03/10/1999
Words: 3496
          Publication: The Sunday Age
Section: Agenda
Page: 4
CROSS-COUNTRY wrestling. Thugby. Men Without Necks. Bum-sniffers. Whatever epithet you care to attach to the gladiatorial game of rugby league and its practitioners, there is no escaping this incontrovertible truth: in Melbourne this past week, the National Rugby League's most surprising premiers, the Melbourne Storm, demanded our attention. Reached out with those great Popeye arms and shook us by the collar.

By the time the final, heart-in-mouth moments of last Sunday's grand final in Sydney were being played out, more than 600,000 Melburnians were glued to their television sets. Those who saw it couldn't fail to be impressed by the spirit of the players clothed in lurid purple, blue and gold jerseys. Those who didn't could scarce have avoided the subsequent celebratory cavalcade that saw the city's latest national champions drink a pub dry with St Kilda players and then share a civic reception with AFL premiers the Kangaroos.

Which all leaves us asking: who are these people, why have they set up camp in Melbourne and why are so many of us suddenly cheering for them?

THE STORY of the Melbourne Storm is, in essence, a commentary on modern sport. It is about commercial opportunity, synergies, profit margins and vertical integration. As so many of these stories do, it begins with a man called Rupert.

Travel back a few years and you find that, in rugby league circles, Melbourne was viewed as a great, succulent peach ready for picking. Almost 90,000 people had turned up to the MCG in 1994 to watch NSW play Queensland in a State Of Origin match. In a period where the robust sport was focused on expansion, Melbourne loomed as the obvious next frontier. Then the code imploded.

Between 1995 and 1997, rugby league engaged in an acrimonious, scarring and, ultimately, unsatisfying blood feud. The feud was made possible when News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch gave the nod to the Australian arm of his global empire, News Ltd, to bankroll a rebel league of clubs disenchanted with the existing administration. Super League, it was hoped, would erode the traditional nexus between the game and Kerry Packer's Nine Network (together with his pay-TV ally Optus Vision) and, in doing so, deliver to Murdoch the vehicle he needed to kick-start his Foxtel Pay-TV venture in the country of his birth.

The man who had presented the Super League idea to Murdoch, via the agency of his News Ltd chairman and chief executive Ken Cowley, was put in control of the new competition. In mid-1997, with Super League embarked on its one and only season, that same man quit his $1million-a-year post and headed to Melbourne, where he began to do what had only been threatened in the past. With News Ltd's financial backing, he busied himself with building a new rugby league club from the ground up. His name was John Ribot and, as the architect of rugby league's bitter revolution, Melbourne might have been reckoned to be the safest place for him.

Ribot's journey from popular Australian Test winger to the most vilified man in rugby league went back to his 1988 appointment as the foundation chief executive of the privately owned Brisbane Broncos club. Over eight years, the native Queenslander turned the News Ltd-sponsored Broncos into arguably the most successful and profitable club in the land, winning back-to-back grand finals in 1992-93 and drawing average crowds of 43,000 to the ANZ Stadium. But all the while he was chafing against what he saw as a leaden-footed, hidebound and Sydney-centric administration, one he believed stood in the way of real progress in a contemporary sporting landscape.

The last straw came when his idea of shifting the 1994 grand final to Brisbane was dismissed outright. After that, the Brisbane board gave him the green light to explore all alternatives. Soon he was laying his plans of a breakaway national-cum-international competition before Cowley.

After numerous court cases (ending with a victorious Ribot declaring ``They can go back to the '50s, we'll take the future"), the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars and the odd death threat, Ribot saw his dream become reality in 1997 as Australian rugby league fans were forced to choose between parallel competitions. As the season unfolded so did the full cost of the conflict, fans deserting the game in droves in reaction to what they saw as overpaid players slugging it out on the greater battlefield of pay-TV interests. It was as the warring camps searched desperately for a way out of the costly quagmire that the 44-year-old Ribot suddenly went south, saying he was stepping down to help speed the healing in what had become a very personal altercation.

Others saw it differently, suggesting the man who had once refused to return Jamie Packer's calls for a month (saying he didn't see the point in getting distracted) was paying the price for failing to deliver on Super League's promise that ``every game will be an event". In hindsight, it begins to look more like a well-considered, pre-emptive strike. In 1997, there were 21 rugby league teams running around Australia (and one in New Zealand), but none in the country's second-largest city. In 1998, with the game reunited, three clubs had been jettisoned and the Melbourne Storm had bobbed up as an unexpected and initially curious addition to the landscape.

ON ARRIVING in Melbourne, Ribot had announced himself as the progenitor and sole owner of a new Super League franchise dedicated to spreading the rugby league gospel in Victoria. That wasn't quite right. Ribot was certainly the brains behind the venture. He was undoubtedly putting up some of his own money. But the bulk of the $10-12million he was to spend setting up and running the club over the next year came from News Ltd's coffers, as it did for the Brisbane, Canberra and North Queensland clubs. This was News Ltd's baby.

The hand of News Ltd, through its organ the Herald Sun, was visible from the start. Ribot's first office was in the Herald Sun building at Southbank. The paper ran a reader competition to choose the new team's name (Ribot favoring Storm over the likes of Trams and Flying Foxes). The captain, Glenn Lazarus, was given a column in the Herald Sun, coach Chris Anderson a column in its stablemate the Sunday Herald Sun. The paper hired a full-time specialist rugby league reporter from one of Murdoch's Queensland papers. An experienced Herald Sun sportswriter won the job as the Storm's media and public relations manager.

What's ownership got to do with it? Well, ponder this. As with any business, there are start-up costs. The quicker you can start turning a profit, the sooner you can recover those costs. The simple fact is that it's in the interests of the Herald Sun's owners for the Storm to be a successful business as soon as possible. One proven way to speed that process is to increase the team's visibility. What business wouldn't want a major metropolitan newspaper leading its publicity campaign? Likewise, what new venture in a city the size of Melbourne wouldn't want influential friends like Ken Cowley?

As Murdoch's trusted lieutenant in Australia, Cowley was the sort of man who could pick up the phone and promptly arrange a meeting with the Premier. After one such call, Ribot found himself in Jeff Kennett's office outlining his ideas for rugby league in Melbourne. Staunch Liberal that he is, Ribot liked the way Kennett conducted business. Kennett found much to like, too, in a man who had prepared an economic-impacts study suggesting the team would spend $12 million in its first year, create 220 jobs, and generate $1 million in tax and $11 million in gross state product.

Having been given Kennett's imprimatur, Ribot was steered towards the Premier's Mr Fixit, head of the Melbourne and Olympic Park Trust, Graeme Samuel. In short time, Ribot's as-yet-unformed team had itself a home at Olympic Park, a venue fortuitously in the process of getting a multi-million dollar facelift.

With somewhere to play, and an administration taking shape, the club started to coalesce. Coach Chris Anderson was hired from Sydney's Super League-aligned Canterbury club. Captain Glenn Lazarus was secured from Ribot's old club Brisbane. As it became clear after the 1997 season that two shaky Super League clubs (Perth's Western Reds and Newcastle's the Hunter Mariners) would fold, Melbourne chief executive Chris Johns swooped to sign 16 of their players. Seven more Super League-aligned players were recruited to top up the roster.

By the time the Melbourne Storm was unveiled at a swish function at the Hyatt in February 1998, the sport had undergone another revolution. Instead of lining up in the Super League competition, it would be one of 20 clubs in the unified NRL competition, a compromise league run by both News Ltd and the original administration. Agreement had been reached on the understanding that the number of clubs would be cut to 14 by 2000.

In the meantime, individuals, clubs and corporate interests that had grown to despise each other would have to co-exist.

Many people on the other side of the divide were death-riding the Storm from the outset. A News Ltd club with no historical right to be there, run by the man whose ``vision" had wrought so much anguish upon the sport, represented a very big target. These antagonists wanted nothing more than for the Storm to follow the Reds and the Mariners into oblivion despite enjoying the mighty patronage of News Ltd.

Just how much News Ltd was behind the club was made apparent when the recently retired, Sydney-based Cowley (his job having been assumed by Lachlan Murdoch) was introduced as the club's chairman at the Hyatt. This was real muscle.

Away from the spotlight, Ribot and his administrative team were feverishly putting in place the foundations for a 21st-century sporting franchise. The club may have been trying to establish a beachhead in foreign, AFL-dominated territory, but Ribot sent out an early signal that sponsors would have to pay at least $1 million a year for naming rights. It was a bold call, especially considering the Melbourne AFL club was cock-a-hoop at the time about signing a $750,000-a-year deal with LG Electronics. While Ribot argued that it was all about setting benchmarks, only clubs with benefactors like News Ltd could actually entertain such a stance (particularly when the policy has meant the club has gone without a major sponsor for two years).

If the club could go without a major sponsor, it couldn't do without supporters. The club had budgeted for an average crowd of 12,500 at Olympic Park and it knew it couldn't rely on Herald Sun promotions alone for that. In the months leading up to the first game, the Storm commissioned research companies to identify where its predisposed market of expatriate New South Welshmen, Queenslanders and Kiwis lived, following up with letter drops and telemarketing. Later, the club conducted exit polls at home games to refine and develop its database. To further improve lines of communication (and keep a track of its fans' thoughts) it posted one of the best internet sites in Australian sport. And once fans showed up at Olympic Park they got all sorts of add-on benefits for the price of admission - giveaways, loud music, a superhero mascot and cheergirls.

The Storm players did their bit as well, and not just by winning. Encouraged by their paymasters, players formed an almost immediate rapport with their new-found fans. Win or lose, they would lap Olympic Park after the game waving to the crowd, applauding them, and thanking them for showing up. Storm home games quickly became love-ins. As one veteran rugby league commentator observed, it isn't so difficult to believe that the players genuinely enjoy the adulation they receive after so many had come from losing, poorly supported clubs. Cynicism aside, by the end of 1998, the club could say it had reached its targets and become the hottest merchandisers in the game to boot.

The last piece of the jigsaw - or the first, depending which way you look at it - was television. Under the terms of the ceasefire, NRL clubs could look forward to being featured on both Foxtel and Optus. What the Storm needed to do was to establish a profile on the Nine Network, the code's free-to-air rights holders. Given that the network chiefs in Sydney had spent much of the previous three years in spiteful dispute with Ribot, and that most experts thought the club would offer curiosity value and little more, that wouldn't be easy.

In the end, Nine reluctantly screened a delayed telecast of Melbourne's first home game, a sell-out that saw the club win its fourth straight game. By the 15th round, the Storm were on top of the competition, but still hadn't managed a live game. Finally, after 17 weeks, the cameras arrived. They've scarcely been off the club since.

The reasons aren't hard to find. Ribot always understood that all the administrative expertise and Herald Sun spruiking in the world wouldn't amount to a pinch of salt if his team didn't win. Which explains why the club held its collective breath on 14 March 1998, as Lazarus led his men out on a bleak day at Wollongong to play their first game against the Illawarra Steelers. In what was to prove a prophetic result, the Storm came back from a 12-0 deficit to squeak home 14-12 in the last minutes. Eighteen months later, in front of Lachlan Murdoch and 107,000 others at Stadium Australia, Lazo's men came back from 14-0 down to win the 1999 NRL grand final by two points (20-18) in the final minutes.

How the team won a premiership and earnt itself a mayoral reception in so short a time is a story in itself. A coach who fostered rare togetherness among his players. An on-field leader who burnt each time he lost, instilling the same feeling in his players. Unknown players who blossomed into stars, role players who flourished in a supportive environment. Away from game day, a highly professional coaching, preparation and injury management set-up, and wives and partners who were made to feel part of the Storm family. Of such things are great sporting clubs made.

SO WHAT now? In what seems the blink of an eye, has the Melbourne Storm by some miracle elevated itself onto a pedestal within touching distance of the AFL?

Had you scanned the Herald Sun this week, extracted the free Storm poster (or, gasp, bought the specially minted WEG poster), you might well wonder. Then again, in the full glow of victory, even Ribot has been cautious about trumpeting that rugby league has captured Melbourne hearts. Rather, he'd like to think the Storm can occupy some warm corner of our hearts as Melbourne's flagbearer in that other winter national code.

In the meantime, the Storm still has the job ahead of it to translate the opportunities presented by last weekend's win into long-term profitability and security. The challenges are legion.

The first arrives in a fortnight when the NRL has the distasteful task of culling two clubs to get to the agreed 14. Rewind two seasons and the Storm might have dreaded this day. Not so now. Although there has already been some animus directed towards the Storm from the likes of South Sydney, one of the 90-year-old Sydney clubs under the gun, there seems no safer bet than that the 1999 premiers will line up in 2000.

Precisely where they will line up may also be decided this month. The club has been discussing the logistics of a move to Colonial Stadium for several months, in the belief that a sophisticated sporting franchise needs a sophisticated home. The grand final win will increase the resolve of both parties to make the shift a reality, the Storm having already determined that there are more than enough AFL-free Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights available. Even the AFL's chief keeper-of-the-faith, operations manager Ian Collins, might be powerless to block them there.

In Murdoch, the Storm has its own powerful advocate. Not one who will continue to pay the bills forever, though. And so to the club's most profound challenge of 2000 - to move rapidly towards standing on its own feet financially at a time when NRL funding is due to halve to $2 million.

After spending about $350 million on getting its piece of rugby league - much of it unrecoverable - News Ltd is looking to close its purse in the coming years. One of the ways it will do that is to get out of three of the four NRL clubs it owns, one of the many pledges given at the time of reunification. All indications are that Melbourne is one of those clubs. Which is why the Storm management is under pressure to move into the black. The sooner the club can show itself to be profitable, the greater the value attached to its licence, and the more money News Ltd can recoup when it comes time to sell out.

All considered, Ribot might finally find his major sponsor. Management is also looking into opening a number of Storm supporter clubs around the city, the hope being that poker machines will help light the way towards the extra $6 million needed to keep the franchise ticking over.

Once more, though, it will be the players who have the biggest say in the club's fortunes. Lazarus is gone. Vice-captain Tawera Nikau is yet to resign. For all that, the future looks rosy. As Lazarus told his coach after last Sunday's win, the game's best players would now beat a path to the premiership club.

If anyone had suggested two years ago that rugby league players would be queueing to get to Melbourne, they'd have been told to stop joking. And there's the rub. As of Sunday, the bum-sniffer gags suddenly stopped being funny.

LINKS

Melbourne Storm official website

www.melbournestorm.com.au

Origins of The Storm

The Executive Director John Ribot

Good mate of Lachlan Murdoch, former Brisbane Broncos CEO and, as the face of Super League, the prime mover in rugby league's internecine war of 1995-97.

The Coach Chris Anderson

A former Test teammate of Ribot's who graduated to become a highly successful coach at Canterbury, "the family club", before seeking new challenges in Melbourne.

The Chief Executive Chris Johns

A Brisbane player under Ribot, handed the job of running the new club's affairs after serving his apprenticeship in the Broncos' marketing and football departments.

The Captain Glenn Lazarus

Unwanted by Brisbane after breaking his leg in 1997, the four-time premiership player was recruited by his former teammate Johns to lead the Storm's on-field fortunes.

The Newcastle Connection

Grand final man-of-the-match Brett Kimmorley, Robbie Ross, Paul Marquet and Richard Swain were all recruited from the Steel City's rebel (and much-despised) team, the Hunter Mariners, after the club was disbanded following the code's rapprochement.

Canterbury Ties

Grand final hero Craig Smith, the winger knocked out scoring the winning try, and fellow try-scorer Ben Roarty were plucked from Canterbury reserve grade by departing first grade coach Anderson.

The Best Of The West

Rampaging forward Rodney Howe and utility back Matt Geyer, the player who kicked the winning conversion, were signed from Perth club the Western Reds after that club was wound up following the 1997 season.

The Men On a Mission

Aaron Moule's club, the Brisbane-based South Queensland Crushers, was squeezed out of the frame in 1997, leaving the young back to forge a new future in the deep south; Crowd favorite Marcus Bai (above) came to Melbourne looking for respect after being paid a pittance at the Gold Coast Chargers, another club destined to become a victim of the game's rationalisation in 1998.

After seven seasons as a fringe player at perennial underachievers North Sydney, forward Danny Williams came to Melbourne looking for success; Matt Rua couldn't crack first grade in three years at Manly and now he's a New Zealand international.

Former Brisbane fringe player Russell Bawden was given a second shot at the big time after heading overseas to star with the club's English affiliate, the London Broncos.

The Coups

Out-of-contract young London Broncos star Tony Martin (right) was about to be offered terms by Brisbane when the Storm came in with an offer too good for the Queensland centre to refuse; Much-travelled Kiwi international Tawera Nikau (above right, the player whose fiery display sparked Melbourne's second half revival) had recently played in the 1997 Super League grand final for Cronulla when Melbourne swooped to secure the 30-year-old lock.

After a seven-year career which produced not one final, Auckland Warriors star forward Stephen Kearney (left) was lured to Melbourne this season in the (apparently correct) belief that he might be the missing piece of the puzzle.

 
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