No Need For Panic Over NRL Crowd Figures… Yet

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In Round 1, there were lower than expected crowds for most games. Rugby league writer Daniel Boss looks into the reasons and potential solutions to this problem.

The first round of the 2014 NRL season saw some very exciting play on the field. Unfortunately, it wasn’t played in front of as many people as it should have been, in particular games played at ANZ Stadium. A few weeks after the ARLC claimed that rugby league would aim to be the number one sport in Australia, these crowd figures showed that rugby league has a way to go yet.

Sure, most of the crowd figures bettered the 2013 average attendances for the home sides and the sky isn’t falling in. However, if rugby league is to become the number one sport in this country, then they need to increase attendances by a significant margin. There are some issues with attending games, in particular games played in Sydney. However, before I go through the various issues and potential strategies the NRL should consider to alleviate these issues, I would just like to point out that the on-field action is a positive. The game is safer than ever before and the new rules will hopefully make the game more exciting to watch, as well as providing opportunities for smaller players to make an impact on games.

Public transport

Even though I currently reside in Canberra, I have visited Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne; the latter two on multiple occasions. From my experiences, it is far easier to get to sporting grounds in Brisbane and Melbourne than it is in Sydney. In Melbourne, the MCG and Etihad Stadium are both quite easy to get to by tram and are both near the centre of the city. As for Brisbane, the same can be said for Suncorp Stadium and the Gabba.

However, in Sydney getting to both ANZ Stadium and Allianz Stadium is not quite as simple. I’ll provide the example of my younger brother Matt, who came with me to the Tigers game on Sunday. He had to be dropped off at Penrith station and change lines at Parramatta. He was lucky that he was on the Western line. If he wasn’t, then two or more changes were required. Also, there are not many train services to the Manly area, which is a possible reason for the lack of travel from Manly supporters to games elsewhere in Sydney.

As for Allianz, it is a couple of kilometres from Central station which is a slightly better situation than for ANZ Stadium. This may not sound like a lot but that adds another half hour to the time taken to get to a game there. It’s just a hassle to get to these grounds using public transport and the ARLC has already tried to ease the pain on fans by making a deal with the NSW government for free public transport to any games at ANZ Stadium. I think they need to go one step further and try to have direct trains to the game from Central station, as it will minimise the number of transfers on public transport to these games.

Poor stadium

ANZ Stadium is a terrible stadium to watch a regular season game of rugby league. It is far too big and the seats are too far away from the ground. For a big game, it is great and can provide a great deal of atmosphere. However, for a game where only a quarter of it is filled (as they were last weekend), there is little atmosphere. This means that there is less incentive to go to a game. I went to the Dragons-Tigers game on Sunday. While there was just under 20,000 people, it felt like there were a lot less. It would have better if I was watching this game on TV with a few mates or family.

There are moves to add removable seating to ANZ Stadium, which would be a positive for the ground as it would allow fans of rugby league, rugby union and soccer to be closer to the action. This will improve the atmosphere of big games as it will allow more fans to attend these games and will improve the atmosphere for smaller games as the fans that do attend will be closer to the action.

If this is not done, then there is scope to build a stadium with a capacity of 30 to 40 thousand in western Sydney. If this is to be done, it needs to be close to a train station and needs to be of rectangular shape. There will be support for this from the Western Sydney Wanderers A-League club, as they almost fill Parramatta Stadium for each home game. If the ARLC work with the FFA, then this may be achieved.

Cost

With membership initiatives, the cost of attending an NRL game can be drastically reduced. However, all other costs such as food, drink and parking are still quite high. On Sunday, I bought lunch for both my brother and I, as well as paying for nearby parking. This set me back by almost $50. For a family, parking and a meal would cost far much more. With cost pressures there, people are choosing not to spend as much money by staying at home. I’m not sure how much control that the league has over prices for food and parking but if they want more people to attend games, then they need to try to work with the stadiums to lower these costs.

Timing of games

I know that the ARLC has no say in this, but the timing of games also is a factor into why NRL games are not as highly attended as hoped. When the NRL saw growth in crowds in the early 2000’s, there was one Friday night game, while the other games were played on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. This was the case when I grew up in Orange, so I knew that we would be able to attend games on the weekend as long as it wasn’t on the Friday night. There are now games on Thursday night, Monday night and Sunday night, which fans cannot travel to. Also, families are less willing to go to those games as it is a school night. If the old structure of one Friday night game, with Saturday night and Sunday afternoon games, then I am of the opinion that attendances would increase.

However, I do know that the NRL earns a lot of money by allowing the TV networks to dictate when games are played. It has resulted in lower attendances, but as mentioned at the start of the article, the sky isn’t falling in. At least not for now.

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