It seems like change, or the presence of change, is constant in rugby league at the moment.
The year began with the hastily announced rule changes and since then, several other ideas have been floated in the media, almost testing fans’ reactions.
Last week conferences were proposed, while this week there has even been conversation about a promotion and relegation system.
For those in favour of a conference system, there have been several suggested benefits (mainly for fans and clubs based in Sydney).
One benefit is the rejuvenation of ‘tribalism’ in rugby league and the return of mammoth crowds to watch the footy.
I hate to burst your bubble, but it’s going to take a lot more than a change in the structure of the competition to get more people through the gates.
But why do we care so much?
Rugby league translates well on television. Given its linear nature, there’s little you miss on TV. The camera angles available lead to an exceptional viewing experience, which is actually better than being at the game.
I love going to live games, particularly at Bankwest Stadium, which is one of the best venues in the country – no matter where you sit, you have a great view.
This is not the case at all grounds. I watched a game at the Sydney Cricket Ground two weeks ago and could not see what was happening at the other end of the field. Why would fans pay (in my case $60 a ticket) to go to a game and not see half of it?
I have previously gone to a game live and then gone home to watch the replay just to get a sense of what happened.
The crowds in rugby league are often compared to the crowds in the AFL, but this isn’t a like-for-like comparison.
Aussie rules as a game is much better live – there is so much happening off the ball that it’s much easier to get a full sense of what is going on. I didn’t understand Aussie rules properly until I went to a game.
Rugby league does not have this problem, which is one of the reasons why the broadcast figures for the NRL continue to be so strong.
And who can blame dedicated fans for wanting to stay home on ‘Super Saturday’ and watch all three games from the comfort of their couch?
The challenge of getting crowds in Sydney is faced across a multitude of sports, just ask the A-League. Until there’s a public transport system that allows people to effectively travel around, the problem will persist: Stadium Australia is near impossible to get to unless special event buses are on, and suburban grounds are even harder.
I also question the association between tribalism and attendance on game day. I’m not for a moment suggesting that NRL Twitter represents all NRL fans, but from where I sit people seem more passionate about their clubs than ever and are constantly reading about, talking about and debating the issues of the game – whether in person or online.
That commitment and passion may be in a different form to what it once looked like, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
In fact, I think it’s there more than ever now.
I’m not saying that a conference system is a bad idea or not worth looking into, but it’s going to take a lot more than conferences to confront these issues.
Perhaps growing the game in new markets will help. Perth, anyone?