Tina Turner and rugby league: an enduring partnership that changed the face of the game | NRL
I28 years have passed since Tina Turner was featured in her last campaign as a rugby league soundtrack, but such is the reverence in which she is held in Australia, the news of her death has cast a long and somber sailing on the game.
The singer, who starred in the Winfield Cup promotion with hits What You Get Is What You See and The Best from 1989 to 1995, died at her home in Switzerland on Wednesday at the age of 83. A testament to its immense and enduring popularity, the game has been overwhelmed with sadness and nostalgia.
Since the mid-90s, there have been regular calls to bring Turner back in another campaign or headline another Grand Final. As recently as 2019, the NRL was in talks with its management to bring back the singer and The Best. Jimmy Barnes performed the song for a longtime Fox NRL promotion.
No campaign – not Bon Jovi or Chumbawamba or Tom Jones, not the Hoodoo Gurus or the poetry of Thomas Keneally or Jessica Mauboy – has ever matched the inspiration and fanfare that Turner managed.
Turner was arguably as beloved in New South Wales and Queensland as anywhere else in the world, a remarkable situation for a grandmother born in Nutbush, Tennessee, who had no idea what the league was all about. rugby before becoming his voice.
A global star who was considered one of the greatest performers at the height of his fame in the late 1980s, Ken Arthurson and John Quayle pulled off one of the most unlikely moves when they signed Turner to become the voice and face of the game. Attempting to change the image of the sport as barbaric and brutal was an attempt to woo female fans, soften and glamorize the stars of the game, and make the game sexy.
The advertisements were an immediate success. Rugby league was presented in a stunning light, a marked departure from the gruff and detached adverts of years past which lacked creativity and ambition. Tina Turner was cool. His songs were cool. Now rugby league was cool.
The world was much bigger in the late 1980s and attracting a global icon instilled a real sense of worth in the game.
Even the most optimistic rugby league brokers at the time could not have imagined the success of the Turner campaigns – or the legacy they would create. Quayle, in particular, deserves most of the credit for getting Turner on board.
When it comes to critical tipping points in rugby league history, Turner’s involvement is certainly one. Gaming in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a semi-professional game, one known for its abject violence, amateur administration, and narrow-minded worldview. Turner changed that and by the mid-1990s rugby league had modernized. The game now had far-reaching commercial appeal. The stars of the game behaved as such. Skill and speed were now valued as much as tenacity and aggression. Crowds were up and definitely more diverse. Television wanted.
Rugby league has evolved from a game to a business and Turner’s impact on that cannot be underestimated.
Without her and the image cleanup she provided, it’s unlikely the uproar that engulfed gaming in the 1990s would have struck as quickly or as hard as it did. Turner, in an extraordinarily quick time, provided rugby league with far-reaching appeal. This brought business opportunities that the administration at the time was ill-prepared to not only fully exploit, but to fully understand that their world was changing.
Former Kiwi skipper Mark Graham once said that rugby league was a professional game run by amateurs, and never was that truer than in the early 1990s. nascent pay-TV had arrived, but the ARL was offering both a weekly game to the ABC and pay-TV rights for nothing to Kerry Packer. Players saw more money coming into the game – even with what was left on the table – and wanted their share as full-time professionalism was in sight, but the game seemed irritated by this notion. It all came to a head in the Super League War which was essentially the offshoot of a mismanaged business.
Full-time professionalism, pay-TV and game marketing would of course come one day. Without Turner accelerating all of this through his ad campaigns, it might have happened more organically and with more time for directors to get to grips with the world they found themselves in. His impact on rugby league, perhaps unwittingly, has been immense.