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

Robert Burgin Columnist

By Robert Burgin, 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.

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    The Crowd Says (87)

    • June 20th 2017 @ 10:08am
      Brendon said | June 20th 2017 @ 10:08am | ! Report

      I’d actually attribute the large decline to the loss of a suitable work/life balance for every day people, particularly the 20-40 age group.

      In the 90’s, a house cost what, $100K? Easily paid for on a 9-5 salary by dad alone. Now houses (in Sydney at least) cost no less than $450K and more like $800K. Both occupants work to pay this off, and then for the male to head off to play footy afterwards is kind of neglectful, particularly if kids are involved. Take my family, for example. I’m late 20’s, own a house in Sydney’s south west, and have 2 kids. My wife and I both HAVE to work or else we can’t afford to own a house. For me to go play footy after working from 6am to 4pm each day is a pipe dream. I’d love to get out but I’d prefer to stay home, help with the house work and play with the kids. Same goes for weekends. My kids do activities, thats more important than me doing things.

      While house prices and cost of living keeps going up, you’re extra curricula activitiy numbers are sure to drop, as mum and dad become equal partners, unlike the old days.

      • June 20th 2017 @ 11:17am
        jeff dustby said | June 20th 2017 @ 11:17am | ! Report

        your housing numbers are not accurate. they were certainly cheaper but interest rates were very high.

        • June 20th 2017 @ 12:56pm
          Baz said | June 20th 2017 @ 12:56pm | ! Report

          a little maths
          approx 100k at 17% interest is 17 k interest a year. Not many ppl paid 17% for long.

          However 500k at 5% is 25K thats not including any principle payments.

          Even at 4% that 20k. That if u only got a 500k loan.

          • June 21st 2017 @ 6:12am
            Norad said | June 21st 2017 @ 6:12am | ! Report

            The decline is mostly due to the introduction of the 10m rule which has increased the fitness demands and brutality of the game. Insurance is too expensive. Being able to front up to work on Monday to feed the family is the priority. Blame the ARL in the 1990s who decided the players outside of the NRL would not want to play league unless it was under NRL rules. But who has time mid week to train for that? Easier to join a RU club or touch/tag or just don’t bother at all. In the USA there is barely no adult football played outside of the NFL. Some games are only meant to be played by fulltime professionals. Thanks to the leaders of NRL and Super League that is what rugby league now is. Why isn’t the old 5m rule put back in place outside of the NRL?

          • Roar Guru

            June 22nd 2017 @ 4:22am
            peeeko said | June 22nd 2017 @ 4:22am | ! Report

            houses cost 100k back then? how many 21yo own houses?

        • June 21st 2017 @ 7:29am
          Brendon said | June 21st 2017 @ 7:29am | ! Report

          $100K at 17% interest over a total of 30 years gives you a monthly repayment of $1425. An $800K loan at 4% over a total of 30 years gives you a monthly repayment of $3800. Wages have not gone up enough to satisfy that growth.

          In addition, that $100K house could have been located in Lewisham, where as now its located in Camden, meaning travel time increases 4 fold, and as such you need to pay 4 times as much petrol, which has gone up by 150%.

          • Roar Guru

            June 22nd 2017 @ 4:23am
            peeeko said | June 22nd 2017 @ 4:23am | ! Report

            houses were not 100k

        • June 21st 2017 @ 10:42am
          no one in particular said | June 21st 2017 @ 10:42am | ! Report

          mortgage as % of income is much higher today the when interest rates were 17%

    • June 20th 2017 @ 10:13am
      Steve said | June 20th 2017 @ 10:13am | ! Report

      Funnily enough despite its current woes I think rugby union had a bit to do with it. When I was younger, in my area there was zero club rugby union played at a senior level, now there would be at least 10 clubs. I think this along with a general decline in people wanting to play contact sports past school age. My son who was a decent junior rugby league player and was playing first grade in the NRRRL decided to “retire” this season and he’s 21.

    • Roar Rookie

      June 20th 2017 @ 10:27am
      Conan of Cooma said | June 20th 2017 @ 10:27am | ! Report

      Lack of support from the NRL and the declining quality of league fans. Sick of attending junior games for the kids and having neck-and-hand tatt sporting bogans swearing at the refs and opposition families. Having one sign at each game with a list of “rules” featuring the picture of a player that was popular 10 years ago is a great indicator of how out of touch the NRL are with anything outside of the premiership comp.

    • June 20th 2017 @ 10:34am
      terrence said | June 20th 2017 @ 10:34am | ! Report

      Interesting article.

      Agree that life (work, relationships, leisure) has changed a lot of the past 25 years. Life also changed a lot in the 25 years to 1992 as well.

      Your analysis seems pretty spot on.

      Also I guess we need to look at the overall team sport participation rates. Have they decreased or increased over the same period? Has there been an increase in non-team sporting events?

      I haven’t been involved in a rugby league club for a long-time, but have friends and family involved at a range of clubs from professional to junior level. What they note is:

      1. Increased participation in NSW / QLD in soccer and AFL. Soccer especially as local associations across Sydney have growth in participation each year. Some of this reflects that people who have migrated to Australia have a background and understanding in the game (unlike league, union or AFL) but also parents giving to nod to soccer over other codes.

      2. The rise of participation in ”individual” sports, namely cycling, triathlons, running, surfing, etc. where there are a lot more events nowadays that people train for that take them away from a team environment. The attraction for some participants (besides the competitions) is the maintaining of fitness, preparing for a specific event (i.e. the Port Macquarie Ironman), whilst being able to train when they want to (i.e. early in the morning, lunchtime, etc.) instead of when the team trains in the afternoon or early evening.

      I wonder what the participation rates will be like in 25 years?

      • June 20th 2017 @ 2:32pm
        kk said | June 20th 2017 @ 2:32pm | ! Report

        Hi terrence,

        IMO, the biggest factor in determining participation rates in 2032 will be the number of schools
        which have retained Rugby League on its Sports Curriculum.

        • June 20th 2017 @ 5:29pm
          terrence said | June 20th 2017 @ 5:29pm | ! Report

          Your not wrong there Max. A few schools jumped to union or have increased choice (in NSW/QLD where at some schools AFL is now played).

          League is looking at females at schools now, in my area a friends daughter will start playing a women’s comp for the first time on a Monday night next term after a well attended clinic and gala day a few weeks ago. A lot of young women were very inspired by the Olympics Women’s Rugby gold medal.

          I thought an earlier post re OzTag and touch footy participation was on the mark as well. I played touch footy for quite a while for work teams in organised comps in weekday midday comps and also a night comp here or there. A lot of fun.

          This more social non-weekend, non-training comps may take a few bods of the weekend games as well.

      • June 20th 2017 @ 2:51pm
        Justin Kearney said | June 20th 2017 @ 2:51pm | ! Report

        Afl has increased as it was tiny to begin with. Soccer has gone ballistic.

        • June 20th 2017 @ 5:30pm
          terrence said | June 20th 2017 @ 5:30pm | ! Report

          No doubt there JK, soccer started with an massive base and still grows in NSW/QLD.

          • June 20th 2017 @ 7:52pm
            Justin Kearney said | June 20th 2017 @ 7:52pm | ! Report

            Yeah terrence soccer almost has no limit. Here in tassie its huge and dwarfs AFL in many places.

    • June 20th 2017 @ 11:19am
      jeff dustby said | June 20th 2017 @ 11:19am | ! Report

      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.

      i dont buy this. People get married later and have kids later (mainly in their 30s). Apart from that things are much the same
      saying that i dont know what the answer is. some things are just cyclical.

      • June 20th 2017 @ 3:21pm
        Mickyo said | June 20th 2017 @ 3:21pm | ! Report

        I don’t think it is cyclical, it is a combination of things, time constraints, smaller families who are unwilling to see Little johnny hurt in contrast with bigger families from 40 years ago who weren’t so fazed by that, contact sport, soccer mums, single parent families controlled by mum, other sports where you won’t get hurt are more accepted and non team sports are also more accepted.

        More competitive junior football does not help and bigger kids and in particular in the Big cities Sydney and Brisbane the rise of the Islander kids who are in general far bigger than the Anglo Celtic kids who have by and large in Sydney and Brisbane moved to soccer.

        A huge demographic change has happened at junior level, PI kids make up a huge % of the big junior RL nurseries in the cities, parents will go and help out where their kids play, at the end of the day the kids will dictate what sport they play, no matter what the parents played.

        IMO junior RL won’t be getting those players back.

        • Roar Guru

          June 22nd 2017 @ 4:24am
          peeeko said | June 22nd 2017 @ 4:24am | ! Report

          i think you are right with demographics

    • June 20th 2017 @ 11:54am
      Adam said | June 20th 2017 @ 11:54am | ! Report

      One of the more interesting articles I’ve read lately, nice change from Origin/expansion/relocation/NRL is hopeless.

      I think the key point which you’ve nailed is the changing roles and responsibilities of blokes in their 20s-30s and how these things don’t mesh as often with playing Rugby League and training twice a week. I think it’s an inevitability that playing a contact sport and risking long and short term injuries drops down the priority list for most people.

      You’ve touched on Touch footy numbers and the boost they’ve provided to the game’s numbers. This kind of thing is probably the key. Pity we don’t have the Oztag numbers too.
      People playing Touch and Oztag ARE playing Rugby League.

      I’m looking at Oztag for the solution – most of these comps run Mon-Thurs with a wide range of skill levels and the vast majority of social teams don’t train, just show up 10 mins before.

      If Oztag doesn’t want to be counted under the NRL, the NRL and it’s States and Clubs should implement their own ‘oztag style’ flexi-social comps.

      Firstly expand the Tag league concept as a competitor to Oztag so we can include those numbers – I’ve heard of “NRL League tag” but it doesn’t exist in Sydney as far as I know.
      Include an option that’s closer in rules and size to full Rugby League – 10 or 11 a side played on a full field. A tougher standard than traditional Oztag for the Leaguies who can’t or won’t play full contact anymore.

      Secondly, play shortened Rugby League summer social comps.
      Night games once a week, small 6 team comps to cater for multiple divisions, 50 minute game times, 11-a-side, 5 metre rule. (Or some variation of this)
      The flexibility of after work play, a lower standard and less fitness/training requirements could bring a lot of adult men back into the game.

      Life and workplace flexibility is an ever growing requirement, sports have to keep up to remain relevant.