The National Rugby League has bowed to pressure from its media partners and decided to scale down its digital content arm in a move that is expected to result in several redundancies at the organisation.
The shift, led by the NRL’s recently appointed chief customer and digital officer Alexi Baker, is part of an ongoing effort to streamline operations at the NRL to save costs and better serve fans. But it will also be considered a win for the company’s two media partners – Nine Entertainment Co and News Corp Foxtel – which have long expressed frustration about the division and argue the NRL’s own website competes with their digital properties.
Staff at the NRL were informed about the change on Wednesday afternoon and about 10 redundancies are expected to take place over the next few weeks. Staff who appeared at the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they were not given the opportunity to ask questions.
The NRL is scaling back its digital operationsCredit:Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images
Under the plans the NRL will move away from creating news-focused content and work more closely with Nine (which is the owner of this masthead) and News Corp-controlled Foxtel on joint projects. The NRL website will mainly feature highlights and short-form videos that entertain fans instead of breaking news. The NRL was approached for comment but did not respond by deadline.
The NRL Digital Network officially launched in 2018 after the organisation took control of its digital assets from Telstra, an arrangement formed under the terms of its $1 billion broadcasting rights deal with Nine and Foxtel. The deal was a significant change in strategy for the NRL and involved the clubs investing money in digital rather than outsourcing it to media partners.
The network is currently made up of five parts including NRL.com, and sites and apps for the competition’s 16 teams. As of last year, the digital unit employed about 80 staff, including a product and technology arm with designers, developers and engineers who ensure the digital products work for fans. It has a media services division which handles game archives and images taken at matches, digital marketing and social media, a data and insights team, and employs about eight journalists who cover matches and interview players and coaches.
This is the first major change for NRL digital division since the arrival of Ms Baker (who previously led negotiations at Nine), who has undertaken a review of the organisation’s media arm. In late August, the NRL notified high-profile ex players and coaches such as Jamie Soward, Brett Kimmorley, Anthony Seibold and Robbie Farah that the website would no longer feature panel shows.
The restructure comes as the NRL prepares to propose the Redcliffe Dolphins as the expansion team for 2023 after agreeing to a deal with News Corp to inject at least $75 million into the sport over five years. Sources with knowledge of discussions told the Herald earlier this week that the NRL is providing the News Corp-owned Brisbane Broncos will an increase in exclusive matches, which will ultimately reduce the number of free-to-air games.
The NRL is presenting to the 16 clubs on Thursday and will provide them with details on how they plan to finance a 17th team. Any savings generated by the NRL could help with the justification of a new team.
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