Why Can’t The NRL Do What The A League Has Just Done?

I always find it interesting to look at crowd numbers in Australia sports because they are influenced by so many different variables.

One thing I have never been able to understand is the way Rugby League in Australia looks at crowd numbers, and more specifically, growing those crowd numbers.

Considering that Rugby League in Australia is one of the three most popular sports in the country, and shows that it can demand a national audience for its biggest games, I always find it fascinating when the average crowd figures come out at the end of each season and the games administrators are happy that crowds grew by just a few hundred extra people per game. It seems to be setting the bar really low to be.

If you look at the A League soccer crowds over the last couple of weeks, it shows you why.

Here is a sport that in Australia is no where near as popular as Rugby League. The quality of the competition is not all that great and for the most part, the A League is still trying to convince the wider sporting public to invest their time and effort into becoming a fan of the competition.

Their crowds range from OK to very poor, and yet over the first two rounds of the competition we have seen some teams being able to add tens of thousands of extra fans to their regular attendances.

Some of that obviously comes from the excitement of a new season, and a few big name imports have also helped draw more through the gates, but this isn’t just about trickery.

If you can get 30,000+ to a soccer game at the Sydney Football Stadium between Sydney and Newcastle, why can’t you get anywhere close to that for most Rugby League games played there?

If the A League has the ability to boost their attendances by so much, why can’t Rugby League do that?

This isn’t a case of Rugby League reaching a saturation point with its market either, there are simply tens of thousands of Rugby League supporters that do not turn up to most game, and we need to be asking why that is.

Facilities and transport are a factor, but then again it didn’t stop soccer fans from battling traffic to get to their game did it? It is not like stadium capacity is an issue for Rugby League teams as many would have more empty seats than filled at points of the season.

Something just isn’t working in the way the NRL is marketing games.

If you took any Sydney club, and you could put together a marketing campaign that boosted their attendance by 2,000 per match, you would do wonders for that club. For most teams, just 2,000 extra people would be the difference between being seen as a battler to being one of the big guns.

It is not like that fans aren’t there! It isn’t as though NRL clubs need to convince someone to take an interest in Rugby League to boost those numbers. If clubs were just able to convince their own fans to turn up, crowds would go through the roof.

I really think this is something the NRL needs to think about and get some outside help with. The current marketing of the game just isn’t hitting the mark, and with the incredible coverage the NRL gets through all forms of media, slight increases in crowds should be seen as a failure when there is such a massive capacity to grow crowd numbers.

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5 thoughts on “Why Can’t The NRL Do What The A League Has Just Done?

  1. What the A-League is right now is pretty much what Ribot was advocating back in the 90’s with Super League, having limited teams in each city.

    The average crowd is dictated by the amount of games and the teams involved in those games. When you have so many teams in the same region, this dilutes the fan base.

    You could argue “what about AFL? They’ve got a similar amount of teams in a similar sized city and get plenty of people going to their games.” The AFL is light years ahead of us when it comes to membership. Membership is what is going to get bums on seats. Canterbury have done an excellent job with an attractively priced membership package (the cheapest priced season family membership package in any national sports competition in Sydney), but they are building off a small base, as are all clubs.

    If you looked at the total crowds per round instead of average crowds, you would see that the NRL gets more spectators than the A-League. In time, average crowds will grow (and that will lead the to the abandonment for regular season games at Brookvale, Kogarah, Cronulla, Parramatta, Penrith, Leichhardt, Campbelltown, just like Belmore, Auburn, Redfern, etc before it).

    If it’s good enough for fans of the NFL to travel interstate to watch their team play (Jets and Giants fans in particular), there’s nothing stopping Sea Eagles, Dragons, Sharks, Eels, Panthers and Tigers fans going to watch games at a larger stadium within the same city.

  2. The problem we have in Sydney though is that transport is bloody terrible. Its not like a fan in say Penrith (I’ll use my own experience here) is an nice drive away from ANZ Stadium at Homebush.

    On a Saturday or Sunday (Not fighting Friday night traffic) you need to factor in the possibility of gridlock when you get close to the stadium.

    For me to travel by public transport to the SFS for instance, one train, straight to central and to get to the stadium….I’ve at the very least taking two hours. There and back. By car from Penrith, forget it. If I manage to get there before kick off, good luck getting parking.

    That is something that once again needs to be factored in to the crowds issue.

    One interesting thing you bring up was the Super League concept of fewer teams in Sydney. If you got rid of say four teams, who ever you like, just pick them randomly, I don’t think the loss of those teams would boost crowds for the remaining teams.

    In Soccer, with the A League, they basically wiped the slate clean and started again and it has seemed to work. However they had problems at games because of racial tensions that would have kept a lot of people away.

    If you look at the Sea Eagles as a good example, I think its fair to say the loss of the North Sydney Bears didn’t have any effect on their crowd of their general base they draw supporters on.

    Its a really complex issue and one that is quite honestly beyond me. I just think that its something the NRL needs to look at. They should have the marketing people working for that that should be addressing these issues.

  3. It amuses me firstly all the hype surrounding Del Piero & Heskey. Super League has been slated for years for bring over the hill players, I’d say this is as bad if not worse. No club in the UK would touch Heskey, he was passed it 3/4 years ago and has been seen as a joke. Del Piero is getting paid far in excess of what he’s really worth now – $2m a year.

    On to the crowd debate. The issue is that RL fans are a tribal lot, and generally the teams fans are pulled from the area local to the club. It happens here, I’m pretty sure it happens in Australia too. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that making teams and fans travel out of their area to stadia they have no identity with isn’t going to draw fans. This highlighted further by the nightmare of travel within Sydney. If you want to draw fans, play in ‘your’ area. Re-develop stadiums, even if only on a gradual basis to improve the facilities and create a community facility that can be used outside of RL too. Given the amount of money that’s coming into the game now in Australia it would be the perfect timeto do it.

  4. Pricing of consumables on ground also contributes to this.. my next door neightbour, devout Manly fan.. 3 boys, him and his wife.. if they goto Brooky it cripples them for the week. They do it once a month even though they have season tix.
    Last game i went to i think it was close to $7 a beer.. thats pretty crazy.

  5. Football is behind the eight ball in Australia. It’s three largest cities are already dominated by two separate codes in Aussie Rules and Rugby League. However, the A-League has the benefit of being a well spread out national sport, without any saturation in any major areas. The culture of the game is different and provides a different experience. As a Sydney FC fan, I can say I much more enjoy the pilgrimage to the SFS to watch the Sky Blues play rather than watch the Tigers because the times are often friendlier with my schedule and memberships are more reasonably priced. That, and Football doesn’t clash with Rugby League in Australia.

    I can somewhat see the argument about Heskey and Del Piero, however, these blokes are putting arses on seats and introducing new skills to the Australian brand of Football. Today it’s Heskey and ADP, hopefully the future will bring big name players in their prime. Unfortunately, for this to happen, players will need to come in the European off-season which is our winter, and that will collide with the larger football codes but given the rise in junior numbers in Football and the A-Leagues increasing popularity, they may make a daring challenge to move to the winter months to draw bigger and more relevant names.

    I will always love Rugby League first and foremost.

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