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Mitchell Collier
Media and Communications Consultant

One of the oldest tactics in the media playbook when confronting a crisis is to create a diversion. A bit of smoke and mirrors can take the attention of the media – and therefore the public – away from an issue you don’t want them talking about.

Yesterday, this age-old tactic was on full display when the NRL announced that it was reviewing its finals format for 2020.

The media crisis:

In case you’ve been living in a cave over summer (or live in an AFL state) rugby league has been rocked over the off-season with scandal. Videos have emerged of players partaking in lewd acts, several players have been accused of acts of domestic violence, and one is facing a rape allegation.

This culminated last week in NRL CEO Todd Greenberg and Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) Chairman Peter Beattie unveiling a raft of new disciplinary rules that include automatic suspension for any player charged with a crime that attracts a jail sentence of 11 years or more.

Thinking they had weathered the media storm, the NRL then woke up to Monday morning headlines that sex videos were being circulated on social media of two Penrith Panthers players.

Faced with another round of devastating headlines bringing the game into disrepute, someone in the hierarchy reached into the bottom drawer of media tricks and pulled out one of the oldest and most effective manoeuvrers: a diversion.

Could this stroke of genius have been the work of ARLC Chair, former Queensland Premier and self-titled media tart Peter Beattie? If so, this move shows he’s lost none of his tactical smarts in his time away from the political fray.

The Diversion:

Mid-afternoon on Monday stories began to appear that the NRL would review its finals format for next season. The idea floated is that instead of the current system of the top eight placed teams qualifying for the finals, the top 6 placed teams would get a week off while teams placed seven to ten on the ladder play a knockout round.

This is hardly a proposal that comes off the back of a 12-month review and a formal report.

It’s the type of idea that could be dreamt up at the pub over a schooner of beer. Or someone in need of a quick fix solution and looking to pick up some quick headlines. And that is exactly what it did.

NRL 360, the flagship rugby league talk show on Fox Sports made it their headline story, with veteran footy journalists Phil Rothfield and Paul Kent strongly disagreeing with each other over the proposed new format; the back page of The Australian today read ‘Wildcard plan for 10-team playoffs’; while the headline for the lead sports story at The Daily Telegraph this morning screamed ‘Fans slam NRL plan to shake up finals format’.

What none of those journalists did was question the timing and the motives for the announcement.  Put another way, sports journos across the country took the bait (was it Beattie-bait?) hook, line and sinker. Even if the ten-team finals format was already on the cards, it’s hard to think the announcement wasn’t fast-tracked to provide the diversion NRL management was looking for.

So today in offices, lunch rooms, worksites and bars around Australia, league fans are more likely to ask each other what they think of this new idea rather than if they’ve seen the latest smutty video of a high-profile footy player.

This doesn’t mean that those bad headlines that have dogged the NRL over the off-season have completely disappeared, but it has provided a diversion and now has the media and the public talking about what the NRL wants them to – the footy.

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