A lot has been said about the NRL crowds after last weekend, and the question on many people’s lips is: how do we revitalise the game and get more people to stump up their hard-earned dollars to come and see the games?
Naturally the AFL is held up as the wunderkind as they continuously defy common sense with the size of crowds they can produce. We’re talking about a league in which a team in a city of around 200,000 people can have an average attendance of 40,000 people.
I understand that there would be some travelling fans, but this is an absolutely incredible number. If anything, does this demonstrate that an engaged community will turn out to watch their team?
Many people will counter with the argument that these crowds only come through a successful team. The Geelong Cats, after all, have made the finals all but four times this century. However, they have averaged home game attendances of over 20,000 since the mid-1980s.
The mighty Demons have probably the longest suffering fans of the AFL. They are at the other end of the spectrum – they have been in the finals only five times this century and they last won a premiership in 1964, some 53 years ago.
Yet the Melbourne Demons have averaged well in excess of 20,000 people attending their games since before their last grand final win. That’s 50-plus seasons of 20,000 people turning out to watch the ongoing trainwreck that is a Melbourne premiership tilt.
For perspective, the Rabittohs last won a premiership in 2014, and this year they had attendance averages of only a touch over 10,000 people. That is probably the real marker of where the attendance issue in the NRL lies, as history and nostalgia get thrown around.
One of the foundation clubs of the game in Australia is so inept at attracting crowds that they averaged barely into five digits.
Yes, admittedly the Rabbitohs played some horrible, horrible football this year, and their season effectively ended in the first round with the injury to Greg Inglis, yet this is a club that has the second-most members in the NRL.
Herein lies a problem. I for one have been a huge proponent of memberships being a saviour for the NRL, but in the research I did for this article I can see that the membership-to-attendance ratio does not necessarily match up like for like. That said, membership drives do at least help drive a small element of building a team experience people are willing to engage with.
Community engagement is another step that teams have to make themselves. It is all well and good to expect the NRL to fix the issue, yet surely the clubs themselves have a role to play as well.
The four best-attended teams are Brisbane, Melbourne, North Queensland and Newcastle. I can hear the bleating already that these teams play in one-team towns and that Sydney has nine – yet Newcastle have won the wooden spoon three years in a row.
What these clubs are able to do is build a culture in their local area that allows people to say, “That’s my team”. Do we have to go back to the days when there was a catchphrase that was thrown around at us to create interest in the game of league? Because if people are interested, they will invariably pay to go watch.
Much like the teams in the AFL, these clubs have built a herd mentality. People will be born into that club and that’s that – Mum, dad, sister, brother, aunt uncle and crazy nan and pop all go for the same team. Heck, everyone meets at the footy on a Sunday afternoon and everyone knows the players’ names, weight and shoe size.
But sadly this mentality is missing with too many of the NRL teams as they fail to engage effectively with the community. I know they are all trying, but they must get better at doing this to bring in the numbers.
As far as the nine-team arguments are concerned, there need not be an issue. The population of Sydney has topped five million people without including the city of Wollongong, so in actual fact the team of five million people is sustaining eight teams. Sure, it seems like quite a few, but it is certainly not the unsustainable level that is claimed year in and year out.
This means that there are some 625,000 people per team that they could be trying to win over and to get to the games.
Naturally the NRL does have a huge role to play in the push for bigger crowds. The scheduling of games is what comes to mind first, as some of the ill-conceived times they have games is surely hurting the league as a whole.
Some time slots instantly make more sense from an attendance perspective. An 8pm kick off in the middle of a Canberra winter is as silly as they come – something I was silly enough to endure this year – when a Saturday or Sunday afternoon bathed in sunlight is what winters are made of. The flip side of this is a Thursday night game in Townsville when so many of their fans travel up to a few hours to watch their team.
The AFL had a slight dip in attendances in 2014 and the league actively worked at bringing back fans, even though they were still the pinnacle league in terms of attendances. Free tickets to kids on Sundays, a general freeze on the ticket price and a proactive push for limiting food prices were all driven by the central body.
We can all give out as many excuses as we want, but the AFL exists in the same country as the NRL, yet the only team that even gets close to the AFL is the Brisbane Broncos, with an average turnout of 31,394. Even more noteworthy is the next best team is the Melbourne Storm with a tick over 18,000.
Yet these pale in comparison to the other winter code in the country. People in Sydney may very well be apathetic towards attending sport, but does that mean we all decide that it is too hard to attract people to get to the game when it is supposedly so much better on the TV?