In late 2015, the NRL announced their monster $1.8 billion television broadcast deal involving the Nine Network, News Corp, Fox Sports and Telstra.
It was a landmark moment for the game, 70 per cent greater than the previous broadcast deal and with the potential to set rugby league in Australia up for a long, long time.
Part of the arrangement was for a regular Thursday night fixture to kick off each round. But has the time slot delivered for all parties?
Some issues immediately came to mind when Thursday was mooted – families can’t go to the game or watch at home because it’s a school night and by the time a 7:50pm kickoff rolls around, the game’s next generation are sound asleep.
Workers might watch at home, but wouldn’t be at the stadium because they’ve got to get up to go earn a dollar the next morning.
The players especially struggle to come good in time. They’re often turning out on five or six days rest and this shows in the end product, which in the main are lacklustre, forgettable experiences – for example, Thursday games come with a weekly average of 61 missed tackles and 21 errors.
It’s not great fun watching two gassed teams do their best when they’re obviously struggling to get up for the contest. Rest and recovery is more important than ever these days and a Thursday game just doesn’t give players enough time to perform at their usual level.
It’s a timeslot obviously designed for TV but in 2019 it’s proving unpopular, and this poor reception is starting to affect the NRL’s key metrics.
Brisbane is the benchmark for big crowds in the NRL but this year their home-ground attendance has dipped under 30,000 for the first time since 2004, largely due to three Thursday games.
The Broncos average crowd on a Thursday is 22,099 people. That’s 10,000 less than the 32,391 they average for their other home games.
Brisbane’s crowds also significantly buttress the midweek game’s overall number – the average attendance is 14,082 and if you remove the Broncos from that it drops to 9938.
Those numbers aren’t sustainable. It causes a poor atmosphere at the ground, and looks and sounds shocking on the telecast, which is starting to encounter its own problems.
The evening’s free-to-air television ratings are also dropping right away. Last week’s Cronulla versus North Queensland game was watched by just 575,000 viewers across the Australian metro and regional markets. The week previous, Brisbane and Canterbury only drew 597,000 viewers.
To put that in ratings context, it’s out of the top ten watched shows on the night and behind shows the likes of The Chase Australia – even less than legendary Aussie soap opera Home and Away. And some Thursday games this year have fared even worse.
The Broncos are a ratings behemoth, that’s why Channel Nine want them in the primetime slots. This season Brisbane have seven Friday night matches and seven Thursday night matches, but even their drawing power isn’t giving Thursdays a kick along.
So what should the NRL do? Their hands are tied by Nine and Fox, who have preferred teams for the big timeslots like Friday nights and Sunday afternoons. Can the NRL throw marquee fixtures at the failing time slot to try breathe life into things?
They’re better off getting rid of Thursday games altogether (outside of public holidays like Anzac Day) and adding a Saturday afternoon game back into the weekly fixture.
A 3pm start on a Saturday afternoon gives families enough time to get to the game after junior league in the mornings (and to be home before the kids are too knackered to manage). It lets those of us who like a drink have some lunch and a couple of cans and, probably most importantly, it rolls beautifully into the 5:30pm game for the broadcasters to keep the attention of couch-bound fans.
When the latest broadcast deal was struck, Nine kicked in a $925 million outlay which gave them free-to-air rights for one of the Saturday games.
The deal also allowed them to on-sell the match to Fox Sports, which they duly did. It’s how networks recover some of the costs when joint broadcast deals are done.
Nine also have free-to-air rights to broadcast the last five Saturday night games of the season as well.
So with the deal not expiring until 2022, there would be some negotiating to do to make a Saturday afternoon game a regular event. It may not be too difficult though, as the case for Thursday night grows weaker each passing round.
Just as the unpopular Monday night games fell by the wayside, the future of Thursday nights should surely be under serious consideration.