NRL crowds have been underwhelming for some time but, at last, they seem to be doing something about it.
I recently posted an article on The Roar claiming the NRL wasn’t doing enough to promote the Round 6 blockbuster between Melbourne and Souths.
It seems Souths CEO Shane Richardson agreed with me, telling Fairfax media his side had received little help in promoting the match.
Richardson also criticized the NRL’s failure to take crowd numbers seriously, stating:
“The number one KPI [key performance indicator] for AFL employees is crowds – we have to start worrying about getting bums on seats too.”
For once, it seemed, the NRL was listening. CEO Dave Smith revealed his plan over the weekend to revitalise NRL attendances.
He calls it ‘E-squared’ and says it is all about entertainment and engagement.
Some potential initiatives he outlined included jumping castles, live music and ‘kick-for-cash’ competitions, with the intention to make every game “like a grand final”.
However, both media and fans alike have poorly received Smith’s plan, with Ray Hadley labeling Smith a ‘Dunce’ and fans labeling some of his initiatives ‘gimmicky’.
While it is easy to mock the idea of a jumping castle being the saving grace of NRL attendances, I fear that Smith’s attackers are missing the point: Smith wants to create value for fans that they can’t get by watching the game on TV.
“Every time someone watched (sic) a game on television we want them to be wishing they could actually be at the ground.”
It is foolish to think that Smith’s seemingly of-the-cuff remarks are the NRL’s ‘grand plan’. They are instead an indication that they intend on undertaking the necessary market research into what will generate value for fans.
One of Hadley’s key criticisms is that poor crowds are a result of expensive ticket prices. But while this is certainly something the NRL needs to address, it is wrong to think this is the only factor.
Hadley claims Smith’s poor decisions are due to the fact he has no background in rugby league, stating, “It’s not the banking industry, Dave. It’s rugby league. It’s owned by the fans, not the big end of town.”
This has certainly been a major criticism of Smith since he took on the role of CEO, especially as he is prone to gaffes such as forgetting the names of important players.
However, the game has been in the hands of people with a ‘rugby league background’ its entire history, so why are we so convinced this is the only way forward?
No one can argue the current match-day entertainment isn’t lacklustre, so why are we so reluctant to accept fresh ideas?
Big businesses have been known to bring people from outside industries into their administrations for decades. They do it because a fresh pair of eyes sees things that others have become blind to.
Leave the football operations to those that know football (after all, that is probably why the NRL appointed former Bulldogs CEO Todd Greenberg as Smith’s understudy) and leave business to those who know business.
The fact is there is no golden solution for NRL crowds. Ticket prices and match-day entertainment are certainly important, but so is understanding the unique personality of each club and its region.
Fans are always talking about atmosphere: a concept much easier to understand than it is to define, or worse, create.
But as long as the fans and the media can embrace change, I am confident the NRL can do what it takes to build NRL crowds.
I see the NRL’s vision for the match day experience as a positive step forward.
I hope the media and fans will look past remarks about jumping castles and appreciate this new plan is not about gimmicks, it is about creating value.
As the saying goes: It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.