The gap narrows between the two big codes
Today’s NRL State of the Game report revealed a particularly impressive set of figures, which NRL CEO David Gallop didn’t hesitate to fire straight across the bow of the AFL.
In particular, Gallop drew attention to the number of close matches in the NRL this year. As Gallop and the despairing AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou would know only too well, the AFL has had more blowouts than Summernats this year. And a lopsided competition is a predictable competition is a dull competition.
While the NRL still lags well behind the AFL in terms of attendance, one of its key advantages is its dominance in subscription TV, where it boasts 74 of the top 100 programs so far in 2011.
In the light of that, the decision of Fox Sports News to cover this morning’s GWS Giants player recruitment announcement rather than David Gallop’s State of the Game presser was both bizarre and ironic.
Nevertheless, Pay TV support continues to be one of rugby league’s strongest pillars. And rugby league continues to be the sport that intrigues the vast majority of fans in NSW and Queensland, two states which together comprise more than half the Australian population.
AFL fans, and Victorians in particular, have long pointed at two measures of their code’s dominance over all others. The first and most obvious is crowds. Since the early 2000s, the AFL has regularly attracted over six millions fans through the gates each season, compared to three million or so for the NRL.
This year, the AFL again broke its attendance record, with 6,525,071 fans through the gates in the regular season. There was, however, a rather serious caveat which the AFL was big enough to admit, namely, that there were 11 extra games this year due to the introduction of Gold Coast Suns.
Indeed, the AFL neglected to trumpet the fact that this year’s average AFL crowd was just under 35,000, the lowest since 2004.
Historically, the other big measure of success for AFL is in memberships.
The AFL dwarfs the NRL on this scale, with well over 600,000 to 180,000. In trumpeting this fact, the AFL’s apologists have long failed to take into account the significant cultural fact that club membership is not a traditional part of NRL fandom.
The different mindsets between “down south” and up north” can never be emphasised enough.
In Melbourne, you wear your colours pinned to your chest and you die buried in your team’s colours. You’re either a member or you’re not fit to call yourself a true fan.
In Sydney, you love your team and heck, you may even go to the game if it’s lousy beach weather. But you don’t need official proof of your allegiance, and you don’t forge your identity based on that allegiance.
So some comparisons are meaningless. Others are not. Either way, it is always fun to watch the codes copy each other’s initiatives. The NRL has embarked aggressively on membership drives in the last couple of years, and who knows? Maybe they’ll catch up one day.
The NRL has also mimicked Andrew Demetriou’s initiatives to celebrate the game’s contribution to the wider community, and it was interesting to note that the NRL listed one of its key achievements this year as raising $2 million for charity.
The NRL has also blatantly copied the Brownlow medal hoopla, with its super-hyped Dally M medal awards night – now with 33 per cent cleavage!
The AFL plays the copycat game too. Just yesterday it announced a 40 man All Australian squad, which will soon enough reduce to 25 men who will be named “All Australians”, even though they will play against all of nobody.
This is their way of getting back at rugby league, who have an actual international series to play at season’s end, and who this week named a train-on squad comprised of players from eliminated NRL teams who are in the running for actual green-and-gold jerseys.
Fun and games. The bottom line is, you could argue all day about whether the gap between the codes is narrowing, and we invite you to do so here right here.
One measure which in theory was going to be useful was the relative success of the NRL’s Gold Coast Titans and the AFL’s Gold Coast Suns. Well, both finished up with the wooden spoon in 2011, so good luck trying to pull anything salvageable out of that wreck.
Meanwhile, while all this goes on, rugby union desperately struggles to achieve its quadrennial injection of mainstream relevance at the world Cup in New Zealand, while soccer plods on, un-noticed by all but the diehards.
For the record, the Socceroos beat Saudi Arabia in a World Cup qualifier 3-1 overnight. Forgot to check who scored the goals. Too busy reading the footy news.
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