Crown numbers are a massive problem and it's hurting the NRL in more than one way. Financially it has an effect while the AFL's finals crowd numbers are making rugby league look like a right joke.
Played at Allianz Stadium the Sharks and Panthers put on a finals battle for the ages with Cronulla eventually prevailing 21-20. Unfortunately for them, under 20,000 spectators showed up in a 44,000 capacity stadium. Just over 17,000 fans turned up in the first week of the finals to see Penrith play New Zealand leaving roughly 65,500 seats empty at the cavernous ANZ Stadium. Being at the actual game that would have meant next to no atmosphere or crowd excitement and on TV it looked shocking.
The NRL will not be able to compete with the AFL in regards to the number of people attending matches, especially when they're regularly drawing in excess of 90,000+ spectators per finals match south of the border.
However, the League can fix the sinking ship by taking all finals games, outside the Grand Final of course, to its traditional suburban venues.
Here's exactly why that solution could be the answer to all their crowd problems during rugby leagues biggest time of the season.
A sellout over thousands of empty seats any day of the week
One prime example is Cronulla. This campaign playing out of Southern Cross Group Stadium, they averaged 12,500 fans per game. That was in a stadium with a capacity of 22,500. If they got only slightly higher numbers to their finals games, then imagine if Cronulla played their finals games at home (provided they had earned the advantage), then it would be a definite sell-out and create and absolutely buzzing atmosphere.
Or the Panthers could be used as another example. Over 14,000 spectators turned up to their home games on average this campaign. Yet against the Warriors in their finals 'home' game, they only got slightly more to turn up than that average. And another question being raised from this is why should the fans have to travel all that way, especially when their team earned the advantage to play at home? With Panthers Stadium having a 22,500 person capacity that would have looked amazing on tv and been great publicity for the NRL with what would have again been a sold-out game.
Fans ticked off?
The NRL's crowd problems don't just translate into the number of people attending a game. They go significantly further and significantly deeper than that. Another major issue potentially arising from this crowd debacle is fans getting disillusioned and angry about their sides playing at these 'major' venues that have no 'homey' feel to them, while also having to travel all that way to see them play. One example is Penrith to Homebush being a forty-minute drive, or around an hour and a half by public transport. Neither is very ideal. While it's similarly bad going from Cronulla to Moore Park. This is something that fans get mad about and in turn, if you said only 50/50 about going to an actual home game, that extra travel already makes up your mind for you. So while the NRL is out there trying to add new fans, instead it should be trying to consolidate its current fanbase. And as a result of their errors, the League is losing fans. Which in turn, as a result, means less and less are going to the games.
Fact: Eight of the League's sixteen clubs have lower membership numbers than that of what they had last season.
More atmosphere; just better
This last point isn't really to do with crowd numbers but more so to do with the importance of suburban venues in today's modernized game. Imagine if every club (similar to the AFL), played their games at an ANZ or an Allianz or a Suncorp. Many teams would be forced to fold, merge or relocate given the staggeringly bad numbers they would get playing at those venues. And the Brookvale's and Leichhardt's of the world have tradition and history attached to them and the NRL can't just get rid of that as they feel appropriate.
The Brookie Hill of 2008 was constantly packed during Manly's magical season, while walking to the Tigers home ground on matchday is really something special, people everywhere cheering for the home side as well as people selling sausage rolls on the side and everything you could possibly want from your pregame experience. How could we possibly lose that from the game?
At least if we keep these within the NRL the fans have no excuse not to turn up and support their beloved side.
And there you have it. Exactly why the NRL needs to move its finals games from the major stadiums to the more traditional ones. The fans love it, while the players live for it. Even people such as Michael Ennis (former Sharks Premiership winner) are backing the concept. It needs to happen for the good of the game and so the League can fix its crowd numbers problem. Todd Greenberg and co, make it happen!
Should NRL Finals be played at Suburban grounds? Let us know in the comments below.