February 28, 2014
Disappointing crowds for the NRL’s opening round next weekend could test chief executive Dave Smith’s pre-season claims the game is enjoying a period of unprecedented growth.
Smith said at the season launch on Wednesday that on the back of the stunning success of the Auckland Nines and Sydney Roosters’ win in the World Club Challenge the game has enjoyed one of best pre-seasons in recent memory.
Few would argue with that, but any momentum gained could stall somewhat in round one with total crowds set to be well down on the initial 200,000 tipped across the eight games.
Despite record membership numbers, ticket sales have been sluggish for round one.
The season opener on Thursday between premiers the Roosters and South Sydney at ANZ Stadium looks set to attract a crowd of around 30,000.
That is well short of the 50,000 initially touted and almost half of the record 59,708 who attended the final-round minor premiership showdown between the bitter arch rivals last year.
It would also be down on the 35,952 fans who witnessed Sonny Bill Williams’ return to the NRL in the corresponding game last year that also kicked off the new season, the biggest crowd for a stand-alone round-one match in Sydney.
Last season’s total first-round crowd figure of 158,678 was also buoyed by the 31,139 that filed into Suncorp Stadium for Brisbane’s clash with Manly.
This season, Brisbane don’t play at home until round two, which means 2014’s total opening-round figure could be down on last year’s.
In 2012, 149,888 fans came through the gates in round one.
However any disappointment for the NRL on crowd figures could be offset by TV ratings.
Last year’s Thursday and Friday night games averaged almost a million viewers nationwide on Channel Nine, with Williams’ return game attracting record ratings in Sydney, and officials are quietly confident that can continue.
The announcement this week of a $50 million 2013 financial-year profit has put Rugby League Central in an understandably bullish mood.
“The NRL has delivered its strongest financial performance on record and set out a clear strategy for the future,” Smith said at the season launch.
"It’s been an amazing few weeks. The best pre-season in many years. One to whet the appetite of all of our members and fans.
“The 2014 season is going to be bigger and better than ever.”
But Smith this week also acknowledged crowds were down around three per cent last season and they could remain a concern for the NRL throughout 2014.