Penrith Panthers premiership winner Mark Geyer has made an impassioned plea to the NRL's powerbrokers to save bush footy clubs battling in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The National Rugby League is reportedly about to benefit from a new, $2 billion television rights deal and Geyer, who won a title with the Panthers in 1991, says it's time bush footy enjoyed a significant slice of the pie.
Talking on his Sydney drive-time radio show on Triple M this week, the former NSW and Australian representative believes the game is "unbelievably flourishing" despite the pandemic and now is the time to help clubs in regional areas either losing sides or completely folding.
He said helping bush footy clubs is the number one way the NRL should spend some of the $2 billion TV rights deal, which covers five years.
"There are so many teams and clubs going under water in the bush," he said.
A number of clubs in Group 11 have struggled to fill sides in recent years while the Dubbo Westside club folded completely after the 2019 season.
Earlier last decade, the Cobar Roosters dropped out of Group 11 and moved back to the Castlereagh League due to the inability to fill three senior sides.
In Group 10 this year, Blayney and Cowra both failed to field first grade sides while the Bears also opted not to form an under 18s side.
The year before, Oberon dropped out of Group 10 entirely, falling back to the Wallerawang Landscaping Cup in the mid-west.
"We seem to be watching them go by (the wayside) and I don't understand it," the rugby league commentator said.
"They're crying out for (help), and every time I see another club in Group 9 or Group 11 or Group 14 go under water I think that's something that could have been avoided."
Propping up clubs in the bush both battling to find players and volunteers to help run things on a weekly basis was just one of a number of ways Geyer says the game's newest TV deal can benefit.
He also believes giving parents some financial relief, making it easier for kids to access the sport, is a no-brainer.
"Once I got to 12 or 13 I started to think I wanted to be a rugby league player when I got older. I think kids 11 and under we should make the game free to play," he added.
The former Panther believes the game's popularity is at an all-time high and it's imperative the sport cashes in on the new eyeballs the COVID-19 pandemic has inadvertently brought to the sport.
"All of a sudden there's more eyes on TV due to COVID and now we have a new audience here to stay," he said, adding a beefed-up school visit schedule across the entire state would do wonders for participation, too.
"We aren't as visual as we once were in schools. I know when I was playing we had a roster and we had to do two school visits in our area per week. I know that's changed.
"My kids didn't see a lot of rugby league players when they were at school ... they saw a lot of AFL players; let's zone in on schools.
"I'd also have a 10 team women's competition that went for 20 weeks that runs alongside the NRL.
"We have to get back to the game day experience and appease everyone. Start with under 20s, NSW Cup and then women's game - four games at the one ground, come on. When we can, we have to try our hardest to give the women's game more. They deserve more respect than that."
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