Monday, October 26, 2015

Three reasons NRL crowds have dwindled

Why aren't you attending NRL games?
The National Rugby League’s vision is to be ‘the most entertaining, most engaging and most respected sport’. This was the guiding statement in the code’s strategic plan that was released at the end of 2012, which was to be a blueprint for the five-years following until the end of the record broadcasting-rights deal it had just signed.

As one of six main objectives’ areas in the strategic plan, the ‘Rugby League Family’ objective encompasses four key focuses: ‘Fans, Members, Volunteers and Code of Conduct’. Critically, within this focus area, the 2017 ‘Fans’ objectives are listed as:
  • An improved game-day experience will have driven growth in average elite game attendance by 4% to 20,000
  • Fan satisfaction will be measured at record levels
  • A coordinated plan will have improved supporter facilities at all levels
From these goals, the NRL outlines initiatives they will pursue in order to reach their targets. One of these is to ‘Grow our fan base’, in which they outline how they will ‘consolidate the current fan base and generate new fans’ by:
  • Improving the game-day experience
  • Directly engaging with members and fans
  • Targeting specific marketing initiatives at potential fans
  • Delivering a five-year membership plan (400,000 members by 2017 end)
  • Pursuing a stadium strategy that places matches in optimal locations
With such professionalised organisational targets and one of the highest paid executive teams across Australian sport, you’d think these objectives would be attainable for the NRL across a five-year period beginning in 2013 when the plan was to be implemented, and culminating at the conclusion of the 2017 NRL season.

However, after three years NRL crowd figures have tumbled with season averages down by almost 8.2% over rounds 1 – 26, and 6.86% over the regular season and finals series combined from 2012 until 2015. Whilst these figures might not resonate with those of you reading this, they are alarming. The average crowd in 2012 was 16,423 for the regular home and away season, today that figure is down to 15,074. Only just clearing a respectable 15,000 mark.

But why have crowds decreased? Not only do these figures show the NRL is yet to gain any news fans, they can be interpreted to show that fans they already had in 2012 have stopped attending games.  

Over the last three years, the NRL has gone about boosting their average fan attendance by playing the ‘right game at the right venue’, a strategy that understandably involved moving blockbuster games to bigger stadiums. Designed to ensure fans weren’t put off attending by having to watch the game from a muddy patch of grass on hill. It was a twenty-first century idea that you have to give some credit for, as it has achieved some minor success. Many fans have enjoyed a big-game experience on Easter weekend, at derbies, or during rivalry rounds. But this hasn’t got the results the administrators’ were looking for. The root of the crowd problems for the NRL goes much deeper, and to understand it one must look at three important events that have occurred during Dave Smith’s tenure.

Firstly, the Australian Rugby League Commission banned the shoulder charge from the game. They did so at the end of 2012 on the advice of a recommendation made from a detailed report into the effects of the shoulder charge. The ARLC acted, to protect players of the game and reduce the risk of cooperate liability, which at the time was under much scrutiny in the American National Football League. While you cannot label this a bad move, especially considering some of the recent happenings surrounding the tackle, it’s one of the key reasons behind a reduced ‘live’ atmosphere at NRL games today. Nothing was better than a ‘big hit’ that had the visual aesthetics to excite the crowd, the potential to turn a match, and ability to raise a crowd when they felt down and out.

Secondly, midway through the 2013 season, the NRL announced it would take a zero-tolerance approach to on-field punching following Paul Gallen’s one-two on Nate Myles. In other words, they banned punching and they banned fighting. The politically correct will list this as a win and it’s hard to argue against when your talking about mum’s letting their boys take up the sport. Punching died because of the time it got banned in. Around the same time as the ban, many ‘king-hits’ in Sydney had tragic consequences, and the ban had to come in. But the game was for 100 years, built on toughness, and those who didn’t want to be involved in some argy-bargy, didn’t play the game. The banning undoubtedly took some of the excitement out of the game. You used to go to a game knowing in the back of you mind that something could possibly erupt, and everyone was out of their chair as soon as it happened. Take the ‘Battle of Brookvale’ as an example, the atmosphere that night following the brawl was incredible. Again, we’ve lost that, and we’ve lost another critical element that adds to the ‘live’ experience.

Last but not least, the live NRL experience, let alone the experience at home, has been ruined by the constant referrals to the video referee by on field-officials. Time and time again we are subjected to decisions being sent up to the man (now men) in the box. Whether that represents a lack in confidence by referee’s to make a call on the field, or the secret KFC deal is true and the advertising targets must be met is debatable, but the fans are sick of it. Well and truly. No longer can you celebrate a length of the field try with a high five amongst the group behind you who have annoyed you for the last 65 minutes. Your left cheering until the ball is put down, but instantly looking for the referee to see which gesture of ‘Deal or No Deal’ he’ll divulge in. You might think this is a cliché whinge that’s become perennial for rugby league fans, but when you think about it, it’s actually taking away from the atmosphere at the ground; the feelings, emotions and acts you get to experience and take part in.

While three considerations are not meant to be the sole reasons why crowds have dwindled, they are observations made that mainstream media continue to make reference to in their discussions about NRL attendances. You can sight the meat-pie prices all you want, even the car-parking at suburban ovals, but for me, the problem lies in the changes to the product. The game has forever been changed with the rubbing out of the shoulder charge and the much-loved Rugby League ‘stink’ is no longer. The drastic increases in referee referrals’ has too, changed the way the game is experienced.

It’s a fact that NRL crowd numbers have fallen, and surely that is evidence that fans satisfaction is not a ‘record’ levels. While a ‘coordinated plan’ to improve supporter facilities could lie in the $1.6 billion to be dedicated to sports infrastructure in NSW and membership is on the rise, the NRL has seriously fallen behind on its objective targets. The need to act and improve some of the aspects of the game-day experience is now, and the in-coming CEO should be putting it at the top of their agenda. Otherwise it will be too late; fans are shifting, the A-League is growing, the AFL is a juggernaut. Are any of these three considerations resonating with you? Have they been overlooked in favour of food prices and transport?