NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo insists the league has been vindicated in its move not to extend the Nine Network's free-to-air deal in 2020 after signing a new five-year contract with the media outfit worth more pre-pandemic levels.
The NRL announced its new deal with Nine on Monday, completing a $400 million broadcast portfolio for the league across all local and overseas rights.
The Nine deal, which is active from 2023, means all current broadcast deals across different mediums will end in 2027 after Fox Sports extended on the game's restart last season.
However, in a big day for the NRL, Abdo revealed to AAP that expansion to an 18th team before the deal ends is still possible if the game believes it is profitable.
Regardless though, the league's new deal as it stands is a big win for Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V'landys and Abdo.
Nine will pay $115 million per season for the game's free-to-air rights, with an additional $15 million in contra and other deals.
It comes after the last deal was worth slightly less at a combined $125 million per year, which was then slashed to around $90 million per annum last season due to COVID-19.
"We are very pleased with the fact we were able to get an uptick, because many people were thinking we would do well to get back to pre-COVID levels," Abdo said.
"Which is part of the reason why we didn't extend with Nine during COVID.
"It's pleasing because that level of investment allows us to re-invest back into the game."
State of Origin will return to having all three games on Wednesday nights, with Nine retaining exclusive rights to the series and the men's grand final.
The return to the Wednesday night format means the end of representative round, which had led to Game II of the Origin series played on a Sunday night.
The addition of the Dolphins will ensure the NRL regular season will run over 26 rounds, with each team to receive two byes and no half-rounds of only four games before Origins.
The timing of byes will be rotated each year, so clubs have a balance of early and end-of-season byes over the life of the five-year deal.
Nine will then continue its current broadcast structure of Thursday and Friday night games, as well as Sunday afternoon and the five Saturday evening games before the finals.
However the season's format could still change again during the life of the deal, if the NRL believes it can pursue an 18th team and a ninth game each round.
"If we do expand, we will revisit that (TV rights) cost," Abdo said.
"Of course it is (possible an 18th team could come before 2028), absolutely. It's not out of the question.
"If the Commission is satisfied with the business case for expansion then we will sit down with our partners.
"The business case has to make sure the incremental investment covers what the cost is and adds value for everyone."
Nine's company's radio platforms, Brisbane's 4BC and Sydney's 2GB, have also secured new deals with the NRL.
The NRL is still in the midst renewing its naming rights sponsorship with Telstra, but will now go to clubs and with a clearer picture on funding and collective bargaining rights for 2023 and beyond.