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Footy race: Well-run AFL is miles ahead of lumbering NRL - and here are six reasons why

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Expert
11th May, 2023
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There are few subjects bound to get more backs up in Australia than when the topic of which of our two pre-eminent football codes is the best: the Australian Football League or the National Rugby League.

There are really three main schools of thought:

  1. Those who love Aussie rules and can’t stand rugby league;
  2. Those who are devoted to rugby league and abhor Aussie rules; and
  3. Those who follow and enjoy both.

I absolutely love both codes and have done so for well over four decades now.

The AFL being miles ahead of the NRL has nothing to do with the actual games themselves, it is about the six stark differences in how they are being administered.

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The broadcast deals

There is a huge difference in the amounts each organisation received for their broadcast rights.

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The AFL is receiving $473 million a year from the broadcasters to televise their 216 games a season (not counting pre-season fixtures). That averages out at almost $2.2 million a game, including all finals.

From 2025 that will rise to $643 million a season for seven years, almost $3 million a game.

Charlie Cameron of the Lions celebrates a goal.

Charlie Cameron of the Lions celebrates a goal. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The NRL’s current deal started this year and runs to the end of 2027 and is worth $2 billion, or $500 million a season for 220 matches.

That runs at just under $2.3 million per game, including all of the finals and the three annual State of Origin games. Those games are an annual ratings bonanza, with all three games regularly being included in the top 20 most viewed programs every year. Game One of the 2019 series was the highest rating program for that year.

However, seven times in the last two decades the highest rating broadcast for the year in Australia has been the AFL Grand Final. Only the above mentioned Origin game in 2019 and the 2014 NRL Grand Final has seen rugby league take out the yearly title.

That is in spite of Rugby League being the main code in NSW, Queensland and the ACT, whose populations combined are over 14 million, with the predominantly AFL focused states having 2 million less in population combined. However, it is clear more people are watching the AFL on TV and the AFL is making a lot more money.

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The average crowds

The gulf in broadcast viewers isn’t the only place that the AFL is beating the NRL like a rented mule.

The average crowds in both competitions suggest it is quite arguable the NRL hasn’t grown and marketed their game nearly as effectively as the AFL.

In 2022, 6.75 million attended the 216 AFL games at an average of 31,250. The NRL, over 217 games, had just over three million fewer attendees, with an average of 17,105 a game.  Clearly the AFL have made their fixtures more affordable and attractive to attend live than the NRL.

While the AFL has quite strong footholds in NSW, Queensland and the ACT, rugby league (apart from the single outpost of the Storm) really has no presence or significant following outside their traditional areas.

Melbourne have been a fixture in the NRL finals since 2003, only missing once in 2010 when they were excluded for systematically breaking the salary cap. While they have won five Grand Finals in that time out of nine contested, their average home crowd over that period is around 15,000.

Melbourne Storm generic crowd

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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Over the same period, where they have won two premierships from six contested, the Sydney Swans have an average home crowd of 30,000.  The North Melbourne Kangaroos, who have only played in seven finals series over the same period – without progressing to even a preliminary final – boast an average home crowd of over 25,000.

The second Sydney side that the AFL has been so determined to persist with for 12 years now – the Giants – have an average home crowd of 10,500. By AFL standards those are shockingly low numbers. However, they are only 4500 lower than the average home crowd of arguably the NRL’s most successful team of the past 25 years.

In spite of this, the NRL is floating the idea of putting a second side in Melbourne. One either has to marvel at their optimism in the stark face of blinding reality or wonder at the sheer scale of their delusion.

Salary cap concessions

When it comes to supporting clubs to be competitive and to encouraging them to retain long-term players, the AFL is streets in front of their Sydney based rivals.

While admittedly assisted by being able to have a draft system for new players, a mechanism that league cannot realistically enact due to the game’s similarity to rugby union, the AFL makes most of the other posts winners too.

Clubs in non-traditional markets have often received salary cap concessions and cost of living allowances to assist them to both attract and retain players. While this is exactly the sort of thing clubs like the Newcastle Knights, Canberra Raiders and the North Queensland Cowboys could benefit from to compete against the pull of the clubs in the big smoke, the NRL has engineered nothing of the sort.

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Further, in the AFL certain payments are excluded from the cap, and concessions are available for some players, in particular for players who have completed 10 seasons with their current club. Their salaries are discounted by 50% for purposes of the cap. This helps teams retain their long term players by being able to well exceed what other clubs are able to offer. It also makes it easier for clubs to retain loyal servants on their books when harsher decisions might otherwise have to have been made.

In contrast the NRL only has the “Veteran and Developed Player Allowance for eligible players who were either developed for the club prior to becoming NRL Players and/or have been a Top 30 player for at least eight years at the club or have been a Top 30 player for at least 10 years across the game.”

And just how much per year does the NRL allow in total for the entire Top 30 players at any club? $188,000. That is under 1.6 per cent of the current $12.1 million salary cap.

Scott Pendlebury of the Magpies celebrates a goal.

(Photo by James Elsby/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Whereas the AFL doesn’t count 50 per cent of the probably considerable salaries of the likes of Geelong’s Tom Hawkins, Collingwood’s Scott Pendlebury, Richmond’s Jack Riewoldt, Brisbane’s Daniel Rich and West Coast Eagles stalwart Andrew Gaff against each of their club’s salary cap, the NRL allows each club just $188,000 in total to help clubs retain their juniors and long-term players.

That’s an extra $188,000 a year for the Storm to try and retain Cameron Munster, Christian Welch and Nelson Asofa-Solomona; the Sea Eagles to retain Daly Cherry-Evans, Jake Trbojevic and Tom Trbojevic; and the Raiders to retain Jack Wighton, Josh Papali’i and Jarrod Croker.

Wighton has signed for South Sydney for reportedly $1 million less than the offer tabled by his club of 14 seasons. Under the AFL rules, the Raiders may have been able to make an offer that was just too good for him to refuse – or totally unbelievable if he had.

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Meanwhile, metropolitan clubs – their boards often peppered with the mega-rich – can seemingly attract and retain players as they please. As it stands, the Raiders are now losing a beloved long-term star they developed from a junior. Look away everyone, nothing to see here…

In a market where it is vital to attract players and have clubs committed to developing juniors, the NRL is doing three-quarters of bugger all to assist or to reward that.

Yet in the same breath they are wanting to further expand the competition.

Poorly constructed competition draws

One of the clearest places where you can see how much better the AFL is run than the NRL is in comparing the construction of their draws.

In an ideal draw all teams get and equal share of the highest rating timeslots to expose them to the widest audience possible. That way they might garner sponsorship and supporters – the lifeblood of any club. As well, you want to make sure that the teams – as far as is possible when there can be such vast distances between them – get even periods between games, with a minimum time between any team’s fixtures ideally being six days.

It is on this particular front that the NRL is failing spectacularly. 

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While both competitions have incidences of teams having to back up to play games with only a five-day turnaround, the 2023 NRL draw is overloaded with them. Further, the only thing worse than a five-day turnaround is one that has significant travel included as well.

The NRL has plenty of those and the AFL barely any.

NRL five-day turnarounds

TeamRoundHome / AwayTravelReceiving teamResultMargin
Rabbitohs2AwayNoPanthersLoss1-12
Knights3HomeNoDolphinsLoss13+
Wests Tigers4AwayYesStormLoss1-12
Raiders5HomeYesPanthersLoss19+
Cowboys6HomeYesDolphinsLoss1-12
Bulldogs6HomeNoRabbitohsLoss19+
Eels8HomeNoBroncosLoss1-12
Panthers8AwayNoRabbitohsLoss1-12
Dragons9HomeNoBulldogsLoss1-12
Sharks9HomeNoCowboysWon19+
Cowboys9AwayYesSharksLoss19+
Roosters9AwayYesWarriorsWon13+
Bulldogs10AwayYesRaidersLoss1-12
Storm11HomeYesBroncos
Roosters11AwayYesPanthers
Dolphins13HomeNoDragons
Titans15HomeNoWests Tigers
Eels16HomeNoSea Eagles
Rabbitohs18AwayYesWarriors
Wests Tigers19HomeYesSharks
Roosters22AwayYesBroncos
Sea Eagles23AwayNoRoosters
Titans23HomeNoWarriors
Eels24AwayYesBroncos
Panthers26HomeYesEels
Storm27AwayYesBroncos
Broncos27HomeNoStorm
Sea Eagles27HomeNoWests Tigers
  • The Roosters and Warriors were both on a five-day turnaround in Round 9 due to both playing on Anzac Day

The brains trust at NRL HQ have managed to engineer a draw that has a total of 26 matches involving sides coming off a five-day turnaround. That is 12.5 per cent of the total home and away fixtures. One in eight of the games.

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Compounding that is that 14 of those incidences (6.7 per cent of all 2023 home and away fixtures) have teams enduring significant travel as well. That is an almost insurmountable handicap.

The two biggest losing margins in 2023 in the NRL have been suffered by teams experiencing a five-day turnaround that was compounded by travel. The Cowboys lost by 38 points to the Sharks in Round 9, with the Raiders getting pumped to the tune of 41 points by a Panthers side who were themselves coming off a luxurious eight-day break. Both of these losing teams went further than week one of the 2022 finals.

All up there have been 12 games played with teams being subjected to five-day turnarounds. The only winning sides have been the Roosters – who beat a depleted Warriors side 14-0 in round nine when they were both on a shortened build-up due to Anzac Day – and the Sharks, who pumped the Cowboys who, as referenced above, were also on a five-day turnaround with travel compounding it in the same game.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

So no side on a five-day turnaround has won when the other team has had a longer break. And there are 14 more instances to come this year…

On the present numbers, that equates to 23 games this season that can pretty much be marked up as a loss due to this awful draw management.

If those damning statistics weren’t enough to expose those running the NRL as incompetent or totally unconcerned about trying to create an even draw, then consider these additional facts.

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While all sides are having to endure at least one five-day turnaround, two sides have been allocated three: the Eels and the Roosters. While only one of Parra’s five-day turnarounds includes significant travel, all three involving the Roosters include lengthy trips.

Eight sides have been allocated two five-day turnarounds, with the Cowboys and Wests Tigers both also undertaking significant travel.

However, the biggest indictment of the failure of the NRL’s draw managers is when you look at which sides are benefiting from playing sides coming off a five-day gap. The Warriors have three matches where they face very poorly rested opponents. Premiers Penrith also benefit from three of these fixtures, with two of them against sides who have also had to travel.

However, the real winners in all of this are the Brisbane Broncos.

Five times in the 2023 home and away season they face sides on a five-day break, with four of those games having their opponents also subjected to significant travel.  

Twice the Broncos will play the Eels and the Storm, with the fifth example against the Roosters. In the interests of full disclosure, the Broncos are also on a five-day turnaround when they meet the Storm at home in round 27. However, anyway you look at that, this draw has given the Broncos, and to a lesser extent the Panthers, a very big leg up.

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Now compare this buffoonery with the AFL’s 2023 draw.

Firstly, it needs to be noted that the AFL has only issued the full fixture, including the day and time of each fixture, up until the end of round 15.

This allows them to be able to adjust the schedule in line with the competitions form, so that the broadcasters will be able to show the biggest clashes from the second half of the season in the prime slots.

AFL five-day turnarounds

TeamRoundHome / AwayTravelReceiving teamResultMargin
Bulldogs3HomeNoLionsWon14
Crows5HomeNoBluesWon56
Bombers7HomeNoCatsLoss28
Demons7HomeNoKangaroosWon90
Magpies7AwayYesCrowsWon1
Saints7HomeNoPowerLost7
Blues11AwayYesSwans

For the 15 rounds of the draw that have been fully stipulated – totalling 128 games – only seven involve five-day turnarounds. That equates to 5.47 per cent of games, equating to just under one in 16 games. Over the first 15 rounds of the NRL there will be 14 of the 120 games that have five-day gaps. That is comparatively more than double.

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By the end of round 15 in the NRL three sides – the Bulldogs, Cowboys and Roosters – will already have been subjected to two incidences of five-day turnarounds. Conversely, by the same point the Panthers will already have received the benefit of playing poorly rested sides on three occasions, with the Broncos and Dolphins being on the happy side of the equation twice each.

In the AFL draw there are only seven sides of 18 that are subjected to a five-day rest, with no team having more than one. Conversely, no club receives the benefit of playing a poorly rested side more than once.

It is almost like whomever put the AFL draw together had some form of care for player welfare and an intention to create as even a draw as possible. The more cynical might suggest the AFL has far more autonomy in regard to their relationship with the broadcasters than the administrators at NRL HQ do.

Whatever the reason, the AFL is clearly streets ahead of the NRL in regard to the scheduling of fixtures.

Dylan Moore of the Hawks is tackled by Adam Treloar of the Bulldogs.

Dylan Moore of the Hawks is tackled by Adam Treloar of the Bulldogs. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Management of on-field runners/trainers

The AFL and the NRL have very different approaches to managing the access to the field of non-players.

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In the AFL the runners are able to access the field to convey messages, deliver water or to check on player injuries without limit. However, they must exit the field as quickly as possible. The risk for them in not doing so is that the runner may be seen to interfere with the game by any of the umpires (boundary and goal umpires included).

Should an umpire determine that a runner has interfered, a free kick is immediately awarded to the opposition at the place of greatest advantage to them, regardless of what is transpiring in the game at that time and including reversing scoring actions.

This is strictly enforced and, as a result, runners are extremely motivated to steer well away from the action, have no interaction with opposition players, and to get off the field as quickly as possible.

The AFL recognises that uncontrolled runners pose a large and unnecessary risk to the play. 

Conversely, while the NRL’s own operation manual has strict laws in it in regard to the access trainers can have to the field, what they can do while on it and that they must exit as quickly as possible, these rules are only vaguely applied at best.

We have the situation where trainers are constant features on the field of play, are obviously providing on-field coaching, and also posing a constant risk for interfering with play when quick changes in possession occur.

In spite of the multiple examples of this risk being realised and causing huge issues – including in the 2019 NRL Grand Final where a trainer blatantly affected play and his side was actually rewarded with possession – the NRL has done nothing to curtail the trainers and they continue to roam free like stray dogs on a motorway, a totally preventable accident waiting to happen.

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This total amateurism is another reason why the NRL is light years behind the AFL.

On-field officials

The officiating of AFL and NRL matches is a difficult role. With high-definition cameras surrounding the fields and ultra slow-motion replays, even the smallest of errors will be picked up and examined.

Both games need officials. They need to be good and they need to be well supported. There needs to be great development pathways.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 25: Victor Radley of the Roosters is placed on report and sent to the sin-bin by Referee Adam Gee during the round eight NRL match between Sydney Roosters and St George Illawarra Dragons at Allianz Stadium on April 25, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Victor Radley is placed on report and sent to the sin bin by referee Adam Gee. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The AFL has a great need for officials as there are nine umpires in each game: three on field, four on the boundary umpires and two in goal. There are 81 umpires required for each full round of nine games. The AFL presently has 103 umpires on their books across Australia and 25 of them are new this year. That is almost a quarter of the entire squad that has been refreshed.

The NRL has just three on-field officials for each game: the referee and two touch judges. So for a full round of games 24 officials are required.

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This is where it gets odd. The NRL only has 19 people to choose from. This means that every weekend a number of officials will do more than one game. So while the AFL is constantly renewing their panel of umpires, the NRL’s panel has barely changed in years and doesn’t even have enough officials on it to do a full round without people having to do multiple games.

While referees boss Jared Maxwell has brought in new blood in the shape of Wyatt Raymond and Darian Furner in recent times, they are the first two new members in quite a while.

The great majority of the NRL’s contracted officials have been the usual suspects for quite a while now. Even when the NRL officials make total howlers they often still back up the next week with no trip back to the lower levels to get their form back.

While in the AFL there are clear and defined pathways as to how an umpire moves from local footy right up into the AFL, in the NRL how an aspiring referee might move from either the NSW Cup or Queensland Cup up to the top tier is unclear at best. You could be forgiven for seeing the NRL officials as a closed shop. And a closed shop rarely ever is a consistently high performing shop.

So while I love both these codes deeply, and I am by no means saying that the AFL is perfectly administered, it is very clear which competition is better run.

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