State of Origin is over, the finals are on the horizon and the race for the top eight is exciting and enthralling.
So NRL crowds should be big, right? Well, not so much.
Last weekend, just on 90,000 people went to the eight NRL matches, with four of them drawing crowds of fewer than 10,000.
Melbourne – occasionally derided as not being a ‘real rugby league city’ – drew the highest crowd of the round, with 15,036 fans watching the Storm beat Manly at AAMI Park.
They are numbers that should seriously worry NRL executives, particularly given the way they look next to the AFL’s numbers.
Of last weekend’s nine AFL matches, six drew crowds of over 30,000, in matches that were played in all six Australian states.
In contrast, five of the eight NRL matches were played in New South Wales, and Michael Johnstone – former general manager of marketing and fan engagement at the NRL – says the poor crowds are down to many reasons.
“Everyone looks for the silver bullet and there is no silver bullet,” Johnstone told The New Daily.
“The AFL has a great membership culture, a great attendance culture generally, but also has great stadiums and really good infrastructure around the city [of Melbourne].”
Johnstone, a career sports marketer, says there’s not much that can be done about the latter, however the NRL and the clubs have worked a lot harder on membership over the past 10 years.
“What we thought would happen was that there’d be a correlation between a lift in membership and a lift in attendance, that hasn’t necessarily happened,” he said.
“What has happened is the clubs have put so much more effort into membership that the efforts they used to put into attracting crowds week-in, week-out just doesn’t happen anymore, because they don’t have the financial or human resources.”
Now consulting to the Parramatta Eels, Johnstone believes that the State of Origin period – which sees star players sit out club games and steals focus for a couple of months – pricing, the scheduling of games, and the weather are also contributing factors.
“What I used to find was that there’s a band of weather where people turn up. If it’s too cold they don’t turn up, and if it’s too nice, they won’t turn up,” he added.
“Also, Sydney people are still pretty traditional and they like turning up to the big games.”
As far as scheduling is concerned, he said there are only a couple of favourable timeslots for most people.
“Sunday afternoon is fine, Saturday evening is fine, it’s when you get Thursday night, and even Friday night to some extent because of Sydney traffic, they definitely compete with TV,” he said.
“Thursday night is a crowd killer. One of the biggest-drawing games in Sydney, traditionally, is Bulldogs versus Eels, which averages high-20,000 to 30,000 people.
“This year, both of those games are on Thursday nights and they’ll struggle to get 15,000.”
He said because clubs have limited marketing budgets, they don’t even try to promote games they know are unlikely to draw big crowds, particularly those scheduled for television audiences.
Johnstone conceded that rugby league is “much easier to follow on TV” than AFL – but that you “just don’t get the atmosphere” you do at big Aussie Rules matches.
“It’s been up to the NRL and the clubs to generate that atmosphere and fan engagement and that’s probably been a bit of a failing on the part of the code,” he conceded.