Both rugby codes in Australia have walked a similar path recently as the economic realities of the COVID-19 pandemic hit home.
Both have tangled with News Corp and been lambasted about over-spending, both have had a CEO step down and both have had at least part of their respective broadcast agreements played out in the media.
As the economic realities of these times grow more evident each day (seen in the NRL’s reduced broadcast contract extension with Channel Nine and Fox) we need to ask ourselves, is this the new normal?
Even more importantly, can this country sustain two professional rugby competitions?
If we look at the facts in the cold light of day, the market isn’t big and profitable enough anymore to have two fully professional rugby competitions with millionaire players, lucrative broadcast agreements and sponsorship deals.
Yes, the two sports will always exist, but maybe not at their current level.
As it stands, Rugby Australia have no broadcast deal beyond 2020 and it is becoming increasingly likely that they will have to re-sign with Fox Sports (a company with its own financial woes) for a considerably diminished value.
This demonstrates that there is less to go around for the winter codes in Australia. With international travel being non-existent at the moment, the road ahead for the 15-a-side code is looking rough.
Many people have recently pointed to the golden age of professional rugby union in Australia around the turn of the century, when the game drew six figure crowds and even the Prime Minister donned a Wallabies tracksuit.
But this was a vastly different time in the makeup of Australian sport. It was around the time of the Sydney Olympics when Australians had a massive appetite for large international competitions. Rugby league was still licking its wounds from the bitter Super League war and rugby’s sun was truly shining with much hay made.
Current times present a vastly differing reality.
Looking at both games it’s somewhat difficult to do a direct comparison. But if you look at a single market like Canberra the picture becomes a little clearer.
Both the Canberra Raiders and the ACT Brumbies call the region home, are Canberra’s only fully professional winter teams which both share the same stadium and their seasons have significant overlap.
Yet in 2019 the Raiders had an average crowd of 16,237 (including a home preliminary final) where the Brumbies as Australia’s most successful Super Rugby franchise in 2019 posted an average crowd of 8,797 (including a home quarter-final).
Perhaps what is more alarming is that in 2014 the Raiders averaged 9,600 where as the Brumbies averaged 12,500 during this time.
So examining the figures here it suggests that at least some rugby union fans in Canberra have switched codes or have stopped attending live games. TV ratings also paint an underwhelming figure for Super Rugby with the current Pay TV average sitting at around 50,000 compared to the NRLs average of 164,000 on Fox.
Despite this ascendancy, the NRL still trails in one vitally important area, sponsorship. When the Rugby Australia financial statements for 2019 came out it made for pretty dire reading, despite one very notable area of financial growth: sponsorship.
Sponsorship rose by five million dollars, which goes someway to showing us that even in its leanest years, sponsors are still eager to create relationships with Rugby Australia.
This is this is partly due to the Rugby World Cup being such a big global event but also due to so many strong business connections in the rugby family.
So while rugby league may have more fans and more money in the bank it is still seen by many as the poor cousin of rugby. The NRL has better average crowds than Super Rugby, the Aviva Premiership and the Pro 14 Rugby competitions, yet struggles to gain the strong commercial partnership and is barely mentioned outside of the east coast of Australia.
Much of this comes down to a word that no one really likes to mention but is at the core of many of these issues, and that is culture. Rugby union culture is seen to many as elitist and even haute by some and it is a large reason that their numbers are drying up and they have such a small market in key areas like Western Sydney and Brisbane’s northern corridor.
Rugby league culture is a reason that the game has so many negative headlines, which in turn is a reason that the bluest of blue chip corporates steer clear of the game.
With the rivers of broadcast gold that the rugby codes have been relying on slowly drying up, both games need to address issues with their culture or face a very bleak future. Considering that Australia is already a crowded sports market and the winter behemoth that is the AFL has a presence everywhere, there is little margin for error for either organisation.
The NRL needs to appeal more to the big end of town and rugby union needs to find a way to engage John and Jane Q Public, because as we have seen recently the future can look very bleak.