Monday Buzz: Why Panthers are feeling the pinch
The Penrith Panthers were once regarded as the benchmark NRL club of the nine Sydney teams.
They have been competitive every year, have the magnificent centre of excellence, the flourishing junior nursery plus the powerful Panthers Group that is made up of six licensed clubs.
Their operation was the envy of all rivals. This, however, is no longer the case on and off the field.
The Panthers Group last year lost more than $5.5 million.
While some Sydney clubs have become self-sufficient since the NRL raised the annual grant to $13 million, the Panthers' NRL team needed a $5.9 million grant from the licensed club to break even.
Their football club costs are way higher than those of their rivals.
CEO Brian Fletcher is believed to be the highest paid in the game and their general manager Phil Gould is on a salary nearly four times more than other Sydney clubs pay for the same position.
In fairness, they do pour more into junior rugby league than any other club.
They also had to pay out the contract of Anthony Griffin and then hire Ivan Cleary from the Wests Tigers on almost $1 million a year.
These exorbitant costs would send other clubs broke. The spending would be almost understandable if the side was performing.
This is why questions now need to be asked about the Griffin sacking.
Clearly, the Panthers are not playing anywhere near as well as last season while he was in charge.
The attack this year is just dreadful. They are averaging only 13.8 points a game compared to 23.3 under Griffin. Linebreaks, tackle busts and offloads are way down.
Last year the Panthers were running fourth approaching the finals when Griffin got his marching orders. A man with no previous head-coaching experience, Cameron Ciraldo, was put in charge and they bombed out in the second week of the finals after a soft win over the Warriors.
Then along came Cleary. Gould wanted Wayne Bennett but was overruled by chairman Dave O'Neill, who privately went off and did the Cleary deal.
I spoke to O'Neill about the situation over the weekend and he insisted he had no regrets about hiring Cleary. What else could he say.
"The results might look better (under Griffin) but would I change what happened?" he said. "No way in the world.
"The direction we've taken is in the best interests of the club. We're going through some pain but we'll get there. We've got a bit of soul-searching to do but we'll come through."
The Panthers have had a two-point win over the Knights and a desperately lucky golden-point victory over the Wests Tigers.
State of Origin halves Nathan Cleary and James Maloney are both struggling.
It's had a knock-on effect with the rest of the team.
There has been some dumb and ill-disciplined play, like when fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak floored Chad Townsend when the Panthers had the ball in the second half. The stupid penalty turned the game.
Off the field, O'Neill insists the Panthers are still strong financially and defends all the spending on the team.
"We see it is an investment in our community," he said.
"You know we could easily move our home games to Bankwest Stadium next year to make more money.
"But is that in the best interests of our fans? The answer is no.
"We could stop sponsoring cricket, netball, men's health, women's health and charities.
"I understand you've got to be profitable before you become charitable. But the Panthers are all about the community. That's what we're here for."