‘Wouldn’t swap it for any other era’: How Tina Turner helped league hit its high note

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There’s a soundtrack to every great Australian sporting era.

It was C’mon Aussie C’mon during Kerry Packer’s cricket revolution and Australian rules had Up There Cazaly. In the case of rugby league, Tina Turner’s high notes were also those of the code.

That first, iconic advertising campaign in 1989 marked the beginning of the greatest era for the “greatest game of all”. The Canberra-Balmain grand final of that year is still widely considered the best decider ever as a slew of superstars captured the imagination of fans.

Laurie Daley, Mal Meninga, Allan Langer, Andrew Ettingshausen and Brad Fittler became household names just as Wally Lewis was finishing his reign as “The King” of the showpiece State of Origin arena.

The years that followed were golden ones. Legendary commentator Ray Warren, after a brief sabbatical, returned to the airwaves in 1992. With “Rabs” calling the game and Turner providing the soundtrack, rugby league never looked – or sounded – better.

“It’s not hard to fill the theatre if you’ve got the best actors performing,” Warren says.

Tina Turner provided the soundtrack for rugby league.Credit: Steven Siewert

“When you mention names like Langer, Meninga and Daley, they played a huge part in the success of the game on the back of the Tina Turner promotion. I can’t imagine the Tina Turner years ever being equalled.”

By any measure, the game was in rude health. In 1995, the Australian Rugby League had expanded to a 20-team competition. For the first time, a game played mainly on the eastern seaboard had a national presence. Every state, save for Tasmania and South Australia, had at least one team, while the Auckland Warriors gave New Zealand representation for the first time.

The average crowd in 1994 was 14,232. To put that into perspective, last year’s figure, after billions of dollars were subsequently spent on stadium infrastructure, was 15,335. The good news for the current administration is that, up to round 12 of this season, the average has risen to 18,731.

Much of the recent growth is believed to be the result of a greater engagement with female fans, a phenomenon that first occurred during the Turner years.

‘The era we were playing in, I wouldn’t swap it for any other era.’

“Rugby league was the outstanding sporting organisation in the country at the time,” says the man who was then running it, former ARL boss Ken Arthurson.

It’s a sentiment echoed by current NRL chief Andrew Abdo, who, during this week’s tributes to Turner, described the period as the “golden era for rugby league”.

Turner had much to do with it. Simply The Best, a song originally written for Bonnie Tyler, became the league’s anthem. A host of rule changes also contributed to the rise in the game’s popularity. It was a defence-dominated game during the early 1980s, marked by a series of dour, low-scoring grand finals. That changed with the rise of the Raiders and Broncos, considered to be among the greatest club sides in history.

Midway through the 1993 season, the defensive line, which only had to retreat five metres, was forced back 10 metres. The move opened up the game at a time when there was no interference from the bunker and players and fans were, for the most part, unaware of the dangers of concussion.

Average crowds for regular-season games during the Tina Turner era

  • 1987: 9487
  • 1988: 10,064
  • 1989: 10,541
  • 1990: 11,341
  • 1991: 12,399
  • 1992: 11,762
  • 1993: 13,652
  • 1994: 14,232

*The average at the end of round 12 for the current season is 18,731 (up from 15,335 last year).

Source: David Middleton, League Information Services

“It felt like we came out of that defence-dominated era into an attacking era and the game might have been a bit sexy off the back of that as well,” says Daley, the champion Raiders, Blues and Kangaroos playmaker.

“It was more entertaining football, that led to more tries on top of the campaign to show all the big hits. It still had that gladiatorial side.

“The style of footy, we had the big sweeping back-line plays, and you don’t get to see that today. It was different. It was a good era, an exciting era, there wasn’t as much structure back then. You were encouraged to use your skill.

“The era we were playing in, I wouldn’t swap it for any other era.”

Tina Turner pictured with the Broncos, winners of the 1993 NSWRL grand final.Credit: NRL Photos

All the while, Turner was providing the backbeat. League powerbrokers have subsequently gone for big names – including Bon Jovi, Tom Jones and even Thomas Keneally – to promote the sport. However, nothing resonated in quite the same way.

“She was simply the best,” marketing guru Max Markson says.

“To get a global superstar to endorse a local sport in just one country is very hard. She was great for rugby league in this country.”

Asked if he had seen a more effective sports marketing campaign in Australia, Markson replies: “This is top of the pops.”

Tina Turner performs at the 1993 grand final.

Turner belted out her classic hits at the 1993 grand final, then handed the trophy to the victorious Broncos team. For many, it was the high point of rugby league.

“Around that time, people began to follow individual players more,” Daley says. “Everyone had their [favourite] team, but people started to take interest in that person and what they looked like. They wanted to make it more accessible to girls.

“They sexed it up a bit and girls started taking an interest in those guys. All I know is that it just worked.”

It worked so well that Rupert Murdoch, wanting to broadcast the sport on his pay TV network, launched Super League. The move sparked a bitter battle that split the game asunder, causing damage that took decades to repair.

Canberra captain Laurie Daley during his playing days.Credit: SMH

The game survived and is again beginning to thrive, with every subsequent successful period compared to those halcyon Turner times.

“It will always live in my memory as a wonderful way to grab the imagination of people, to present our game in a different fashion,” Warren says.

“It’s a wonderful promotion; I don’t think rugby league has ever forgotten it.”

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