Rugby League prides itself on being The Greatest Game of All self-proclaimed. Arrogance on the ARL Commission’s behalf? Maybe so, but the product speaks for itself and has done so for 105 years. No other sporting code in the land or world throws up gladiatorial contests, coupled with amazing athleticism, enriched with sportsmanship and ultimate respect for one another. But just because the product is far superior to its competitors, Rugby League can ill afford to rest on its laurels and perceived strengths.
Whilst Rugby League’s big blockbusters and representative games generate a lot of interest and support, it’s the general fixtures that are proving to be of a concern for the Game’s governing body. The image of empty seats at multiple stadiums and venues is not only an eye sore, but embarrassing. A game that unlike its rivals, has the capacity to thrill spectators for the entire 80 minutes, is definitely a strength to its arsenal. Fans and consumers do not have to worry about a nil all score line, nor will they be bored to death with a goal kicking exhibition. So why the low numbers?
Game day experience is not just about what happens on the pitch. Whilst the hits, set pieces, ad lib brilliance and general athleticism of Rugby League’s athletes are worth the price of admission alone, its that word price that deters many a fan, spectator and family from attending. It is the associated costs that come with going to a fixture; which include parking, entry, food and beverage. These variables accumulate to quite a substantial hit the back pocket. Wouldn’t it be must easier to stay home and watch it on tele or at a pub or club that has pay television?
Game day entertainment is also an area that needs to be addressed. The NRL seem to be catching up in regards to its big games. Origin and the Grand Final always seem to have great entertainment through well known reputable acts performing live which creates a mini concert feel for those in attendance. But Premiership Rounds? This is where the Game has dropped the ball. A kicking competition or a relay race with fans is not cutting it. If the NRL wants to put more bums on seats, you need to entice your audience to fork out their hard earned for a return on their investment so to speak.
How does the ARL Commission go about this? Fact finding missions and research tours. It does not matter where any of the English Premier League clubs sit on the ladder in the Barclay’s Premier Football (soccer) competition, yet every game is full to the brim of fans. Games and club memberships are often sold out months in advance with others placed on a waiting list. The United States has a similar occurrence with the NFL and NBA consistently erecting the ‘Full House’ sign on its games. Dave Smith needs to send his management team to investigate, source, study and see how it’s done in these rival and international codes. What can we learn from our competitors? What can we use and implement that we as a code already are not doing? Let’s take our heads out of the sand and stop being content with our product and our game. It’s time to change the mind set, the mentality, the culture.
As for TV ratings, it’s been well documented that ratings are down on both platforms of free to air and subscription television. Two main reasons why this may be the case. Popular supported team have not performed with fence sitters and fickle fans tuning out. The other, the scheduling debacle of live and delayed coverage of Rugby League. Fans in Sydney and NSW can not stand watching Brisbane every Friday evening as the second game. The other frustration is the advertisements thsat are associated with the delayed telecast. Both QLD and NSW, VIC etc have the same problem when it comes to the delayed telecast. An 80 minute fixtures turns into 2 and half hours of viewing, many who tune out because they are struggling to keep their eyes open at the end of the working week.
Whilst fans love nothing more than watching football, it is enough to see many not worry about the second game, record it on fox sports if they have that luxury and watch it the next day or over the weekend. This is determnetial to the game and its broadcaster. How does the NRL and its broadcasting parnters fix this? That’s the 1.2 Billion dollar question? Channel 9 can ill afford to do away with its ads. Advertisements are the reason why we have free to air coverage. The advertising space brings in revenue. To dismiss that, is purely poor business sense and unfortunately, as ratings do not amount to dollars (David Gyngell would love it if they did though)
An idea that I have thought about for some time would be for Ch 9 to engage its digital arms in GO and GEM and look at screening both games live at the same time; hence giving viewers and fans the option to choose which game they want to watch, while the delayed telecast can remain the same or alternate on the digital channels, not sacrificing its advertising commitments to the companies that are paying good coin to have their brand and image run throughout the telecast. This is just one idea, a strategy that I believe the ARL Commission and its broadcasting partners can look further into because at the end of the day, we as a Game need to be keeping people interested, keeping people watching and maintaining the support for the Greatest Game of All both from a televised viewing perspective as well as a live attendance view.
The best news to come out of Rugby League Central during the week was from ARL Commission CEO Dave Smith stating that there are plans, strategies in place with a goal to double current club memberships by 2017. This would virtually take most clubs well over the 25,000 mark. A franchise like Brisbane however, would see their membership well over 40,000 and South Sydney hit close to 50,000. Such membership figures would see the NRL competing with its biggest rival in the AFL who has had a head start on Rugby League for well over a decade in regards to establishing an independent commission along with a major emphasis upon the importance of clubs building their membership bases.
The potential is there. Anything the Game wants to achieve it can. A proactive nature is half the battle. Suffice to say, Rugby League after an eternity of lethargy is starting to finally see action speaking louder than words. The jury is still out on the Commission, as it is Dave Smith, John Grant the new formed management team. But they deserve some time to see these objectives attained. To quote a Pantene Pro V commercial “it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen”. The Game’s hierarchy now that Rugby League’s number one stakeholder will keep them accountable for their actions and their word. That stakeholder is us, the fans….