What happened to rugby league’s missing 25,000 players?

Robert Burgin Columnist

By , Robert Burgin is a Roar Expert


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    In the 25 years since 1992 the number of Australians has risen by more than six million people. In the same period of time the number of senior rugby league players has dropped by around 25,000.

    What this article is not, is an attempt to bash rugby league on the eve of one of our biggest games of the year.

    Yet what it does hope to prompt are some honest conversations about what has happened to adults playing rugby league, whether it matters to the game, what can be done, and what are the wider ramifications.

    Almost always when we talk about rugby league registrations nowadays, the focus is on junior numbers and female participation.

    I know this well, because in the early 2000s I used to help write reports for the Queensland Rugby League that showed genuine, astronomical rises in the number of junior players.

    In a four-year period from seasons 2003-2006 the number of kids playing more than five games per year in Australia rose 26 per cent.

    The number of kids playing less than five games per year rose 80 per cent, thanks to a massive increase in the number of development officers employed and the number of school programs started.

    But even in this boom period, the huge hike in junior numbers masked a steady decline of senior footballers.

    The peak for senior rugby league registrations in Australia was 1992 when around the country there were 57,000 adults in structured competitions.

    By the early 2000s this number was already in the low 30,000s, a figure that has fluctuated slightly year-on-year, but never really recovered, despite an almost 40 per cent rise in the nation’s population.

    The good news of course is that the number of female players has well and truly boomed in the last decade, while junior numbers remain strong, if not always growing as quickly as they did.

    Now their is an alignment with touch football, the stats for total players also get another sneaky boost.

    But what does it mean that we now have less fathers, older brothers and mates playing the tackle game as our juniors transition into adulthood?

    Interestingly, on top of the number of registered senior players dropping, it appears teams are needing more registered players each year to field a side. In other words, senior players are not only less numerous, but also playing less frequently.

    I went to help a mate’s team last weekend, sitting one spot outside the top four. Due to wash-outs and forfeits, his team had played just seven games so far this season, but already used 43 players.

    He debuted another two new players last weekend who were late additions before the June 30 cut-off for signings. You’d think that would mean he’d have more than 20 players sitting on the sideline keen for a game.

    The opposite was true and he struggled to field a full squad.

    Last season his team used 57 players in one grade. The grade above him for the same club used 53 players and was only one win off a grand final. This is not anecdotal evidence, but numbers verified with league statisticians.

    In the 20 years I’ve been involved with senior footy, it’s clear the number of competing commitments – work, relationships, travel etc – has increased massively for adult players.

    On any given weekend, you can have more players unavailable than are available.

    Part of this I see in a positive light. There are more fathers and husbands who take equal ownership of duties with their partners these days, and are mindful of being supportive of their children’s pursuits.

    It seems much more common now than in the 1990s that a guy will miss a game to host a child’s birthday party, to support his wife in a fitness challenge, or to work an extra day towards the house.

    Affordability of housing comes into it, an issue so pervading across Australia that we cannot expect it to leave one of our nation’s favourite pastimes untouched.

    When there are people out there working seven days a week just to afford a downpayment in a dog-eat-dog real estate market, there’s definitely pressure to skip an afternoon spent running around the field and then a night drinking with teammates.

    As a society we’re also seemingly more sensitive to causing anyone offense.

    In years gone by it would be acceptable, if a teammate was getting married, for most of the team to finish the game, get changed and then arrive halfway through the celebrations.

    Now, blokes are sure to be there for every word of the vows, the release of butterflies and every Instagram snap possible. It’s a changing world in this respect, and weddings are only one example.

    Of course, in the past 20 years we’ve also seen air travel become much more accessible and affordable, which means more guys travelling away, both on short-term domestic trips and longer-term backpacking adventures.

    Add to that the number of fly-in-fly-out workers you may have in your team who work in the mining and resources sector.

    It’s clear as day that rugby league is up against it on many fronts in the bid to retain senior male players.

    That’s without even mentioning how easy it is for the less responsible guys to skip playing and spend ‘Super Saturday’ parked on their couch watching the footy on TV with a half-carton of beers.

    Whether NRL administrators consider that last scenario as good or bad for the game is up for debate.

    NRL CEO Todd Greenberg

    (AAP Image/Dan Peled)

    My one suggestion for amateur, country and suburban leagues would be to look at incorporating shorter seasons into the calendar – not replacing your traditional 20-game season, but offering an alternative.

    There will always be players who want the full six months of playing footy, in a two-round home-and-away fixture format.

    But if teams are going through 57 blokes in a year, that tells me there are an awful lot of guys unavailable for reasons other than injury on any given weekend.

    It also stands to reason that we are probably scaring off some players who would be keen to play, but don’t want to commit to 20+ weeks of a year, so they never sign up at all.

    If you could offer an additional 10-round lightning season where you only play two games a month and the fixtures are released well in advance, those with competing commitments could plan accordingly and would be more willing to put their body on the line and recruit mates to do the same.

    This team could complement your top team of consistent performers.

    To me the issue is that our society has changed an awful lot in the last two decades, but the offering to our senior men – arguably the demographic that has faced the most change – has stayed the same.

    I’d also like to see more nines competitions or carnival days, because everything in this day and age is about creating the image of an ‘event’ or ‘milestone’ that people want to be seen at.

    In Brisbane specifically, I believe part of the problem is the lack of amateur clubs close to the city heart. While the CBD and surrounds have become more densely populated, the closest clubs are professional standard, meaning a reasonable trek via public transport for any office warriors or inner city dwellers who may be finishing up around the 6pm mark.

    I’m interested in your thoughts on whether it’s a pointless battle getting adults into league, whether all the focus should fall on kids and women, or any ideas you have to increase participation rates?

    Robert Burgin
    Robert Burgin

    Robert Burgin is a sports writer of 20 years with a particular appetite for Rugby League's exotic and bizarre tales. Find him on Twitter @RobBurginWriter.