It seems that around this time of the year certain factions of the rugby league media make all manner of assertions that the grim reaper is camped just outside rugby league’s door and death knell is to sound as soon as the life support drips to an end.
They quote everything from trial viewing figures to 1990s participation rates noting that with the aid of a search engine you can find facts to support any argument.
Historically there is more money than ever before in the game, more people watching the game and crowd figures are higher than the “golden age” that commentators and jaded fans constantly use as a yard stick to the games shortcomings.
But I concede in modern times, perception is everything.
When people see seas of empty seats, players fronting courts on serious charges and hear of clubs finances falling once again into the red, they can be forgiven for thinking that the game is on its knees – and the governing body does have some legitimate criticisms levelled at it, particularly about the direction the game is headed (no one really seems to know).
It is also particularly hard to sell the game to new fans when it is perceived to be understrength.
Countless times whilst travelling I have watched a game at a bar or hotel and found that I am bumbling through weak excuses to interested onlookers as to why the game is played in front of such a small audience.
At the same time as the chatter about the game dying begins, some proactive fans and commentators begin throwing up solutions; some are well thought out and considered and some a little more fanciful.
Sure, small NRL crowds look bad, but they’re not that big of a concern. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
But most of these ideas come to the same point; that there are too many teams particularly in Sydney and then there is the inevitable talk of expansion and relocation.
This is an incredibly difficult because there is a tasty omelette in the form of a new city with a new broadcast market and new fans. So is it worth breaking a few eggs?
Even though some Sydney clubs definitely have unique and consistent challenges, each one of them has members, sponsorship, history and assets here in Sydney. To up and move any of the teams without a thoughtful and considered approach could cause irreparable damage to the game at large.
Rugby league is currently handling the biggest shift in the way we consume sport since the invention of the television better than most other codes.
Ratings are remaining consistent (if not improving) even though far fewer people are watching TV and it seems to have a mostly agreeable (in terms of revenue) balance between pay TV and FTA coverage. There could always be more games on FTA but the NRL and Fox have a symbiotic relationship in that they both really need each other.
In fact, so far, Fox have made up some of Channel 9’s losses from last season.
But as we have seen in the A-League this year, ratings can fall sharply without much warning or reason as more and more of us are watching our programs through streaming services rather than traditional TV programming. For the NRL, it can only hope that the huge digital investment it has made begins to see dividends.
As navigating this brave new world of sports broadcasting becomes trickier, now more than ever the NRL and the clubs need to work together.
The game grants the clubs millions of dollars every year and they have a right to see that the money is used wisely. If clubs constantly lose money, present poor crowds or have staff members that bring the game into disrepute perhaps the NRL is within its right to conclude that the money could be better spent in a new market.
Clubs have a responsibility to be good stewards of the broadcast and sponsorship funds that yes they do help procure, but the NRL does have the right to protect their investment.
Clubs should be graded on all metrics of performance such as crowd numbers, financial health, junior development, growth of the women’s game, club culture and community engagement not just on field success.
If fans know that their club will be graded on all manner of tangible facets of performance (independently to offset perceived bias) they can be active in making sure their team will remain local, relevant and successful and if the team constantly underperforms the evidence for more drastic measures should not seem like so much of an orchestrated ambush.
Storm fans in the crowd show their support during the 2018 NRL Grand Final match between the Melbourne Storm and the Sydney Roosters at ANZ Stadium on September 30, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Sydney clubs in particular have unique challenges in drawing in fans and maintaining commercial success. These should be considered to a point; Woolooware and Brookvale are far different markets to Brisbane and Auckland but far too often the Sydney club use this as excuses and appear to not even attempt to grow their brand.
Clubs should not be able to just throw up their hands and cite Sydney traffic or poor infrastructure as road blocks to crowd growth and financial health.
When I lived in Merseyside, if Liverpool or Everton were playing on a weeknight it added an hour to my journey in a tiny city, yet never did it stop the two clubs from drawing major crowds, nor did a lack of on field success or weeknight scheduling.
In a city of over 4.4 million people, clubs should be able to draw crowds of over twenty thousand on a weekly basis.
NRL clubs do some wonderful things and each week they provide the content of the game we love, so they are due a slice of the revenue pie but in taking that they have a mandate to work with the NRL in growing the game, not trying to succeed in spite of it.