Sport Rugby League NRL CEO Dave Smith gives up the worst job in sport
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NRL CEO Dave Smith gives up the worst job in sport

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There went Dave Smith, off into the sunset, no doubt walking lighter on his feet now that he’s no longer CEO of the NRL.

It was fitting that on the day he handed in his notice he had to face a grilling from the assembled media.

Smith’s career has been peppered with so many of these prickly press conferences he should have a media centre named in his honour.

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Whether it was a salary cap rort, drug scandal, domestic violence charge or just another run-of-the-mill drunk-player-on-the-tear story, there would be Dave – front row centre, slipping punches like Floyd Patterson and giving as good as he got with his gentle Welsh-infused lilt.

Trumpeted by Australian Rugby League Commission chairman John Grant as a person who “knows business and knows how to lead” on his appointment in 2012, Smith certainly boosted the NRL’s coffers.

And then he was gone: Smith bounces out of his final press conference as NRL boss. Photo: Getty
And then he was gone: Smith bounces out of his final press conference as NRL boss. Photo: Getty

From the very beginning Smith was a stranger in a strange land.

He was a banker parachuted in as the head of a fiercely tribal, sometimes cannibalistic, factional code, which he knew little about.

In truth Smith probably didn’t realise what he was getting into.

He insisted the fans were the NRL’s most important shareholders but hardly endeared himself to them by failing to know who Kangaroos captain Cameron Smith was.

He also spoke of the talents of ‘Benji Barba’ at the 2013 season launch, confusing two of the game’s best players in Ben Barba and Benji Marshall.

“You have good days and you have bad days, of course you regret those sort of things,” Smith said.

In announcing he was quitting from his role as NRL CEO on Tuesday, Smith pulled the curtain down on a tumultuous three-year reign.

Among his achievements were “a sustainability fund of $50 million and a surplus of $100 million”.

But looming large over Smith’s departure is his failure to conclude the NRL’s next broadcast deal.

He locked in a free-to-air deal with Channel Nine worth $925 million in August, but the inking of that agreement rankled News Corporation, the owner of the NRL’s pay-TV partner Foxtel.

Eight days later News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch went on the offensive, declaring: “We have always preferred Australian rules but, I guess, we will engage with the NRL in time.”

The company put talks on hold until the end of the season.

There has been speculation that Smith’s relationship with ARLC chairman Grant had broken down, and that the latter disapproved of Smith’s handling of the negotiations.

There has been speculation Smith's relationship with ARLC chairman John Grant was stormy. Photo: Getty
There has been speculation Smith’s relationship with ARLC chairman John Grant was stormy. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless, Smith was keen to shout his successes from the rooftops on Tuesday.

“I think our broadcast rights are in really, really good shape,” he said.

“What we did was a landmark free-to-air deal because the free-to-air market of all of the markets is the most uncertain.

“We are proud of that deal.

“We are entirely comfortable that over the time period that we deliberately set ourselves, two-and-a-half years, that we are in great shape and we continue with commercially confident discussions but they are very productive and constructive discussions.”

When quizzed about his failure to conclude the Foxtel deal, Smith said he wouldn’t be stepping away if he was not convinced of a good outcome.

Veteran rugby league journalist Phil Rothfield said there are several issues which will tarnish Smith’s legacy.

“He’s done a fine job with the game’s finances,” Rothfield said on The Daily Telegraph‘s website.

“He came in with a business and banking background, and the game is certainly set up for a strong future. But this next TV deal has got to be done.

“But the game has a lot of problems … crowds are down, junior participation is down and when the strategic plan was done three years ago, all these key elements were supposed to be on the rise.

“They haven’t, so Dave Smith falls on his sword.”

Whatever comes next for Smith, he’ll no doubt be relieved that the next time he faces the media, he won’t have to mention the word “peptide” or “salary cap” or “prescription painkillers”.

– with AAP

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