The Western Sydney Wanderers have had an incredible first season in the A League. A dream season! This time last year the thought of the Western Sydney Wanderers didn’t even exist!
Now they sit at the top of the A League ladder, they have built a solid supporter base and on Saturday night they sold out Parramatta Stadium for their 1-1 draw against Sydney FC.
I like to see the Wanderers go well. I consider myself a Wanderers fan. However when I saw the crowd on Saturday night, I couldn’t help but wonder what the NRL is making of the Wanderers success.
When was the last time the Parramatta Eels sold out Parramatta Stadium? For all of the Eels advantages, a bigger supporter base, a much bigger media presence, a much longer history, why are we at a point where a team that is less than a year old can go into the Eels home stadium and out draw them, easily, during the Rugby League season?
This isn’t just a question for the Parramatta Eels to ask themselves. All Sydney clubs outside of the Canterbury Bulldogs and South Sydney Rabbitohs are drawing atrocious crowds. Sure crowds for the most part are down across all sports in Sydney, but for Rugby League to dominate in so many different ways in this city and yet fail dismally to attract fans to games, something is very wrong here.
No Western Sydney Wanderers player has the same profile as the likes of Jarryd Hayne, Benji Marshall, Paul Gallen or even Sonny Bill Williams if you want to go that far. Yet this is a club that is happy to stay at Parramatta Stadium knowing they could draw even more people through the gates at a larger stadium. The club has been such a success that they are now pushing for a new stadium, one that they are main tenant at. A cheeky move, but one that shows this is a club with an eye on a much bigger future.
Does Rugby League in Sydney need a complete rethink as to how the game is marketed? Has Sydney’s sporting market been changed by sports that have pushed for larger catchment areas across the city rather than Rugby Leagues regional look at the Sydney area?
There is no doubt that other sports in Sydney prosper in terms of crowd numbers due to the fact that they can focus marketing in the city on one major game every weekend. The NRL hasn’t got the ability to do this on a week in, week out basis because there are so many games played in Sydney on any given weekend. It is almost a case that other clubs are selling events, where as Rugby League is just selling games to attend. It might not seem like a huge difference, but if it is enough to inspire even a few thousand more people to turn up for your “Event”, it can make the world of difference.
The facilities teams are playing at play their part.
Some of the stadiums NRL teams in Sydney play at are throwbacks to a bygone era. Your modern sports fan can stay at home and watch games live on high definition televisions. The days of only being able to see a game if you sat on a hill at your local footy stadium are long gone. Sure there are people that will tell you they love sitting on a grass hill to watch a game, but they are in the minority. Most people will go to a game if they know they can get parking, a good seat that is under cover, decent views of the field and not have to wait in huge cues to get a feed, a drink or just to use the toilet.
How many stadiums in Sydney that NRL clubs use can tick all of those boxes? Not many!
You also have to ask yourself if NRL clubs are doing everything they can to create a game day experience that will attract people to games.
Personally, I turn up just to see football. I don’t care about any lower grade games or pre match entertainment but that doesn’t mean clubs shouldn’t be thinking about these sort of things. As we see during ANZAC Day and during the Easter Show, if you can tie your football game in with a non football event, you will draw people in from that event.
For instance, I think the Penrith Panthers should organize a day that celebrate Polynesian communities in Sydneys west. There are a few events like this held in Sydney, but if the Panthers could organize such a day that ended with the Panthers hosting the Warriors, it would boost the crowd for that game and hopefully make a few new fans in the process. Once again, its about creating an event and not just throwing on a game of footy.
Kickoff times also need to be looked at.
In Sydney, Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon are favoured as it allows people to get out to the game for a night out, or with their family, and then have plenty of time to get home by fighting their way through the cities notorious traffic. When you have games played on a Thursday night or Monday night, this then becomes an issue in that fans now have to once again weight up the effort to attend a match versus just watching the game on television.
With some night games kicking off at 8:15, many fans can expect to not actually leave the stadium to close on 11pm. When you factor in the travel back home, many people that attend night time games are not getting home until after midnight. Good luck even thinking about taking your family to those games!
The NRL needs to look at everything it can do to help boost crowds because at the end of the day, crowds are the only area of that game that has become stagnate over the last ten years. It would be irresponsible for the powers that be to look at the money the game generates from broadcasters and think rest on their laurels.
When you look at the raw numbers that the NRL generates through television ratings, memberships, social media engagement, merchandise sales and so on, there is no way at all that NRL crowds should be as low as they are.
If David Smith wants something to focus on something he can improve in the NRL, this would be a great place to start.
A well known Rugby League writer, League Freak has established a reputation among supporters of the game for his fearless commentary and unmatched insight. With a reach that spans both sides of the globe, League Freak has produced an independent network that allows him to distribute content to his many thousands of followers. He is the owner and main author of LeagueFreak.com