NRL: Number two, but for how much longer?

The hard-cold facts are that the NRL is in great danger. The NBL and A-League are slowly rising up for the kill. For how much longer will RL be Australia's second sport?


Picture credit: Adam JWC

The Hyundai A-League, along with the NBL have been very busy recently for all things positive. Whether it’s the eye-popping additions of former international superstar sprinter Usain Bolt, ex-AC Milan player Keisuke Honda and former NBA Champion Andrew Bogut. Or historically excellent for the NBL is that they broke all sorts of membership and crowd numbers during their last campaign. All these significant moves and tractions both codes are making have them slowly clipping at the heels of the National Rugby League.

While in stark contrast, the NRL unlike their rival codes, have been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Whether its coaches being mistreated (cough, cough, Trent Barrett/ Anthony Griffin), continuing to publicly back people who should be in jail (Matt Lodge) and the referees continuous stuff ups each and every week with nothing ever changing. While both crowd and membership numbers are looking very blunt for the NRL itself. None of this is helping the NRL while only endearing itself to its eagerly hungry rival codes.

Could what the NBL and A-League are slowly but surely building combined with some disastrous implosions that are happening within the NRL mean that Australia will soon have a new number two sport? Let’s find out shall we.

Marketability; What each league brings at face value

For the NRL being a 16 team market means that there’s always going to be the chance that a group of teams significantly break away from their counterparts and that’s exactly what’s happened so far this season. For example, South Sydney currently sit on 15 wins, double that of Canterbury and Manly who eight and seven apiece, respectively. Or another piece of evidence is the Storm being 8-2 in their last 10 games compared to North Queensland who are 3-7. So while the top teams who dominate the League are fun to watch whenever they play, if a Manly vs Gold Coast game happened, how many viewers and fans through the gate would it actually get? Not a lot is the answer and there lies one of the problems for a League that has a lot of teams in it.

Now turning to the A-League, despite many fans being frustrated by it so far remaining a ten team competition, it at least makes for some excitement and a lot of the games are very closely decided. After all, who would have thought that the Victory who finished fourth during the regular season, would have gone on to win the Grand Final? Not many. Or that the wooden spooners from the campaign before would be the ones facing Melbourne in the Grand Final? Again not many. While the FFA Cup was decided in extra time by two entirely different teams in the form of Sydney and Adelaide.

And for the NBL their finals series last season was as pulsating and as crazy as ever. The Grand Final Series went right down to the wire with United beating Adelaide in five games. While one of those games was decided by three points. And when it was the first seed vs the fourth seed and the second seed vs the third seed in the qualifying finals, the second game of each series was decided by only two and one point/s respectively. While just one observation from the regular season was that the Sydney Kings (who finished second last), ended their season with four straight victories. As a whole the NBL last campaign was a good alternative to the NBA for fans and spectators to tune into.

Other factors coming into play

While players retiring is something that is definitely working against the League. Players like Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Johnathan Thurston are soon to be gone from the game entirely while none play Representative Footy anymore. While if you were to look into or read into the media for a bit, the constant coaching circus surrounding the League and the constant stuff up’s by the Refs doesn’t do it any positives either. Paul McGregor is currently coaching a finals bound side, yet his name is being bandied about as someone who might get the sack in favour of an old coach and one who left the Dragons in utter disarray upon him leaving the club (Wayne Bennett). While all of these are very separate issues for the NRL to sort out and handle, they all come together in the sense that they represent something very bad for the NRL, a loss of fans. The more these issues continue to arise and cripple the League the more people will stop watching the game and more than likely turn to other sports. It might be sad but it’s the truth. And this also hurts the NRL financially as well.

The NBL is a sport that is quickly on the rise and catching up, everything they’ve seemed to be doing recently is positive and the competition is led by two very smart men in the form of Jeremy Loliger and Larry Kestelman. They recently helped spearhead the League to a very nice broadcast agreement with Channel 10, while the NBL TV APP has proved a resounding success. If that wasn’t enough, they’ve also very wisely capitalised on the popularity of the NBA here in Australia not only last season but also this season by scheduling a series of games against American opposition. So completely opposite to the NRL, they are actually making inroads for people to support the NBL and its teams. And they continue to make an excellent name for themselves in the Australian Sporting Community.

While for the A-League, in some regards they still mightily struggle, but that’s not at all too dissimilar to the NRL either. Bringing in Honda and Bolt are guaranteed results, they’ll 100% put bums on seats and bring crowds through the gates which will no doubt help them to catch up to the NRL in regards to numbers of spectators per game, etc. While the A-League has also produced players such as Daniel Arzani who has recently joined Manchester City (and then subsequently Celtic), something that doesn’t hurt their cause either. 

And while the VAR might be controversial, at least there’s a bit of effort in trying to get the decisions right as opposed to the NRL who seem to screw up on a nightly basis. For example if Dylan Napa is being punished now for his horrible tackle against the Broncos, why was nothing done about it when he did something completely similar earlier in the season. And again there never seems to be any negative public behaviour by A-League players or officials, meanwhile Rugby League be off signing the Matt Lodge’s of the world or letting hard-working coaches like Trent Barrett be bullied.

Crowd and membership numbers

For the NRL they’ve had some pretty shocking numbers this season. While those compare especially poorly to the NBL who have some of their best numbers on record. One of which was their largest aggregate crowd over an entire season (ever) last season. For example, during the Tigers dramatic win over Manly, just over 8000 people turned up to watch the spectacle. While the Bulldogs exciting victory over the Warriors recently saw only 9,688 spectators come in through the gates. And in a decent boost for the A-League eight of the competitions 10 clubs drew in average attendances of 9000 or more people last season. Being led by the Victory with an average of 17,489 fans and Sydney with 14,888.

Melbourne Victory (18,990), have more members than six NRL clubs. Some of which include Cronulla, Newcastle and Canterbury. While the Wanderers also have a very nice 14,730 and counting members signed on for the upcoming season. While Rugby League has some very nicely placed clubs such as Brisbane, South Sydney and Parramatta, several clubs are struggling which is a major issue. The Titans have just 10,667 members and Manly 12,420. While both of those clubs are also ranked among the bottom in the League as well. As for the NBL they have rapidly improving numbers, especially with the Wildcats on/or around the 11,000 mark.

*On a quick side note to this article as well, it’s well worth noting that FIFA’s potential involvement within or taking over the FFA would also give a massive leg up to Australian Football as well.

In conclusion, the NRL is still Australia’s second favourite sport. But both other rival codes are quickly gaining on them due to the NRL’s incompetencies and also based on what the respective leagues offer themselves. Don’t write them off because in around 5-10 years time, depending on what happens, League may no longer be considered the second ‘best’ behind only the AFL.

Is the NRL in danger of falling behind other sporting codes in Australia? Let us know in the comments below.

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