The power of online commentary is a microcosm of what is changing the coverage of rugby specifically, and the cultural industry more widely. Online viewer numbers and the volume of comments are, of course, a relatively new and seductive toy for mainstream media and, like any new toy, they grip management’s imagination. As an overcompensation for the cruder and broader measurements of earlier generations, this tangible sample has the ability to distort the notion of what works. And that’s before we even get to the question of quality.

Credit:Illustration: Simon Letch

Rugby, because of where it stands in the rights-purchasing cycle in Australia, has had to be the canary down the mineshaft. It was assumed, up to a decade ago, that rugby was the third-ranking winter football code, but not a long way behind the NRL and AFL. Once newspapers went online and readership numbers could be assessed instantly and (supposedly) more accurately, the surprise was how very far behind the others rugby was. In fact, every sport outside the NRL, AFL and cricket were a lot further behind than anyone supposed – at least if online traffic was any guide.

Fox has its own challenges, which lie primarily in the fact that it spent heavily to obtain rights and to broadcast a wide menu of sport, in order to secure a dominant market position. This expenditure has not been justified by subscription and advertising income. But that’s just a case of a corporation banking on a loss-leader strategy that didn’t quite work out. It’s the story of the failed promise of the internet age.

If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t find the book you’re looking for in a bookshop – and can’t get past the wall of Lee Childs at the front door – or why everybody is watching the same behemoth TV series, listening to the same music, griping about the same issues, wearing the same colours, pushing up house prices in the same suburbs of the same cities, you might see why the big three have their dedicated channels on Fox Sports, and why, for that matter, you read the same endless year-round glut of news stories on Steve Smith and Latrell Mitchell. The advent of the online world promised infinite diversity of choice, but instead, consumers have just wanted what everyone else wants. For those who supply the product, if everyone wants to be associated with number one, the safest management choice is always going to be to feed the big beast.

As the big get bigger, the small get starved. Tennis and golf coverage survive, but only because Australia is a satellite of international circuits. The A-League is punished at both ends, as resources are sucked away from a supposedly lesser code, and also by the relative accessibility of the top European leagues to Australian viewers. Where the starvation of the smaller codes really hits is in a sport like rugby, where small viewership numbers are punished by a withdrawal of resourcing, which then guarantees even smaller follower numbers in the future. The cycle, whether virtuous at the top or vicious at the bottom, works with the same brutal physics.

The highly-regarded Nick McArdle, left, fronted Fox Sports' rugby programming for 13 years.

The highly-regarded Nick McArdle, left, fronted Fox Sports’ rugby programming for 13 years.

Is this data sampling accurate or valuable? In the newspaper business, online readership numbers and the volume of comments can inform future online editorial decisions. Journalists, chasing numbers, follow each other down the black hole of infinite stories on Nick Kyrgios. But online is only part of the overall readership. Offline estimates of reader numbers still carry some weight, and about newsworthiness and quality also persist.

For now. If your media wanted to give up the fight completely and surrender control to robots, you could get a perfect reflection of your existing choices and receive an automated Facebook news feed. And you thought that the biggest threat to sport in this country was someone putting a shotgun in the hands of Senator Bridget McKenzie.

In a world where conformism rules and the winner takes all, Fox’s shrinking rugby coverage is a visible example of the slow strangulation of the non-winner. Nick McArdle wouldn’t have generated much outrage or hate mail, because invisibility is the hallmark of a good operator in that job. His role – more than the individual – is surplus to requirements.


McArdle’s absence will harm the coverage, as it will subtract from its professionalism, and then viewer numbers will fall further, because people won’t want to watch something cheaper and dumber than it was. And then it will be too late. Rugby will be the book you can’t buy, the movie you can’t see, the city that missed the boom. Contributors like Nick McArdle, you don’t necessarily notice them while they are there, but you certainly will once they’re gone. Rugby’s administrators have a tremendous job on their hands to ensure that that’s not what we are soon saying about their code.

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