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The smaller NRL crowds confirm the AFL is the superior code? Rubbish!

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Expert
16th September, 2018
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5974 Reads

If the hysteria is to be believed, we now have the proof that the AFL is clearly better and more popular than the NRL.

A combined 162,656 AFL fans attended the two finals in Melbourne over the weekend, whereas only 67,399 NRL fans turned up to the two semis held in Sydney.

The AFL’s attendance was 68.6 per cent bigger than the NRL’s.

The number of vacant seats at both Allianz Stadium on Friday night and at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night – while the AGL finals at the MCG had big crowds – was a clear demonstration that the AFL is Australia’s preeminent sporting code and that the NRL is failing. Right?

The good people at Fox Sports certainly found a lot of people who thought so.

But that’s all utter crap.

Sure, there were lots of empty seats at both NRL finals, but the 48,188 who turned up to ANZ Stadium for the Bunnies vs Dragons were the second biggest Week 2 finals crowd ever (50,621 in 2007 for Eels vs Bulldogs is the biggest).

Rabbitohs

(Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

Further, NRL club memberships are at an all-time high and the broadcast ratings are too. Earlier this season it was pointed out that the NRL – which is mainly based in just three of Australia’s states and territories (with a single outpost in Melbourne) – was looking like it might win the ratings battle with the AFL in 2018, in spite of the latter code being played in all eight states and territories.

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This past weekend the free to air ratings for the four finals matches looked like this:
– Rabbitohs vs Dragons: 943k
– Magpies vs Greater Western Sydney: 1157k
– Sharks vs Panthers: 859k
– Hawks vs Demons: 1244k

Those figures don’t speak to me of one code’s popularity dwarfing or crushing the other by any stretch.

And let’s remember that the main audience for any code of footy in Australia is watching at home, the club or the pub.

While it is great for a big roaring crowd to be in attendance, the reality is that the broadcast deals are far more important the both the AFL and NRL administrations than ground attendance.

Bums on seats at the venue are highly desirable, but secondary concerns.

NRL Finals empty seats

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Further, the reality is that – in my view – the first two weekends of NRL finals footy has been superior to that produced in the AFL.

Speaking as a multilingual sports fan – I’m a long-term member of an AFL, an NRL and a Super Rugby side – the NRL finals matches have been far more exciting.

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Three of them have been nailbiting spectacles that have had fans glued to the final siren.

Storm versus Rabbitohs, Rabbitohs versus Dragons, and Panthers versus Sharks were all superb games, truly worthy of finals status.

Conversely, of the six AFL finals so far only the results of Collingwood versus West Coast and Collingwood versus GWS were really in doubt come the fourth quarter. All of the rest have been frankly – a bit boring – although well attended.

However, nearly 100,000 more fans turned up at the two games held at the MCG than turned up at Allianz Stadium and ANZ Stadium. That’s a big number that needs to be dissected. There are a number of reasons that there is such a disparity in crowd numbers.

The AFL stadiums are in the right places.

The MCG and Marvel Stadium are both right on the edge of the Melbourne CBD. Not only that, the city’s rail and tram networks run directly to them, making it easy for fans to get there.

The Sydney stadiums are dreadfully located. The recent suggestion of a new stadium at Central Station is a really good one. However, it seems that the NSW Government is committed to rebuilding the Sydney Football Stadium at massive expense, despite its inconvenient location and distance from the rail network.

ANZ Stadium is in the Homebush Bay cul de sac. The rail that goes there is only a branch line. Further, the Homebush precinct is next to nothing. It’s not even that convenient to Parramatta, and it is ages away from the CBD. Allianz Stadium is a minimum 20-minute walk from Central Station. That’s not an ideal scenario with kids in tow at all.

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To drive to either can be a complete nightmare.

Speaking from ghastly experience, Sydney’s road system from 3pm on Friday afternoons onwards is god awful, crawling traffic. The M5 and Eastern Distributor are frequently car parks. To get from the Shire to the Moore Park precinct can easily take over an hour.

For a Panthers fan to be confident of making their seat at Allianz Stadium by 7:30, they wouldn’t want to set off much later than 5pm. Lots of people don’t finish work until then.

Given that state of affairs, watching on the telly is a really favourable option.

Further, the broadcast deal is why a finals game is played at a time and day that makes it difficult for fans to get to. The Friday night time slot is clearly the highest rating for both codes.

Leichhardt

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Naturally, the broadcasters who pay such a massive amount to get the rights want to get the best value for their money. So while it would be much easier for fans to get to a Saturday or Sunday afternoon or evening game, the TV audiences would plummet. The broadcasters won’t wear that. But let’s not be surprised when there are plenty of empty seats at those games.

Part of the issue, of course, is the NRL’s insistence – possibly as a result of commercial arrangements – to play Sydney-based finals at Allianz and ANZ even when they aren’t the ideal venues. While it has half the capacity of the stadium at Moore Park, a full-to-capacity Shark Park (or Leichhardt, or Brookvale, or Panther Park, or Belmore, or Canberra, or Newcastle for that matter) has a brilliant atmosphere. It is the sort of vibe that really adds to the experience and makes people want to go again and again.

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Just looking at the finals crowds for Allianz Stadium in recent times shows you that it hasn’t been the best option for some finals matches:

2018
Sharks vs Panthers – 19,211

2017
Sea Eagles vs Panthers – 15,408
Sharks vs Cowboys – 16,115

2016
Panthers vs Bulldogs – 22,631

In all of those cases, the higher-ranked side deserved an actual home ground advantage and that those games would have been packed out if that had been the case. If last weekend’s games had been held in the Shire and at Allianz respectively, both would have been sell-outs and this issue doesn’t get raised at all. We all just focus on how damn good the games were.

And how good were the games? That’s the key to focus on here.

Sure, there certainly are tweaks that can be made to improve the overall look, but so far the quality and competitiveness of the 2018 NRL finals show that the game is doing just fine and not subjugated by the AFL at all.