NRL audience plummets by more than 1 million since restart
By Adrian Proszenko and Sam Phillips
July 26, 2020
The NRL has lost more than a million viewers – or a quarter of its television audience – since the competition restarted, despite the positive feedback on its rule changes, to hand the AFL a dominant victory in the ratings battle.
OzTAM ratings obtained by The Sun-Herald indicate a huge drop in league audiences on Nine (the owners of this masthead) and Fox Sports during the past two months. When the season resumed in round three, 4,524,780 people tuned in to watch the eight games. In round 10, that number plummeted to 3,376,000, representing a fall of 1.15 million viewers, or a decrease of 25 per cent.
By way of comparison, the AFL had 5,801,000 tune in for their season restart and have been able to keep the majority of eyeballs on their product. They dropped 697,000 viewers to 5,104,000 last weekend.
The figures come as some surprise given the NRL has been lauded for its law changes, with most pundits crediting the six-again rule for increasing fatigue and adding to the spectacle. The downside, however, has been an increase in one-sided matches as the discrepancy between the strong and weak teams is exposed.
At the same time, the AFL’s decision to revert to 16-minute quarters has led to tighter tussles. The quality of the spectacle, however, has been widely questioned. Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson is one of several luminaries lamenting the state of the game, describing it as “dreadful” as contests degenerate due to regular stoppages and predictable ball movement.
A consequence has been a series of tighter contests, with a greater number of viewers tuning in until the end of games as they go down to the wire.
However, ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys believes the biggest factor behind the drop in league audiences are the performances of the three Queensland teams.
The Broncos are given prime-time free-to-air spots and usually attract a huge following, but Anthony Seibold’s side has won only one match since the resumption. Moreover, they have failed to remain competitive in most matches, as evidenced by the way the Storm trounced them in the second half of Friday night’s 46-8 loss.
“Unfortunately, because the Queensland teams are near the bottom of the ladder, it hasn’t helped the ratings in Queensland, no doubt about that,” V’landys said.
“We didn’t expect to keep all of the audience in the first round because we were the only sport that was playing on that day, of any sport. We just have to keep making the game more entertaining. We’re in the entertainment market. People have a lot of choices.
“We need to make sure we attract that casual audience that aren’t rusted-on fans.”
The biggest audience fall since the restart has been on Nine, mirroring a general decline in free-to-air figures. The NRL’s free-to-air segment share in Sydney and Brisbane is actually up 1 per cent year on year, despite more people consuming content on other platforms. Another reason for the big drop-off could be the absence of the Easter, Anzac and Magic rounds, which normally result in a spike in viewers.
Meanwhile, streaming numbers have increased by 93 per cent between rounds three and seven, but there had been a significant decline in subscriptions while there was no sport being played in Australia and the increase does not make up for the decline in traditional viewers.
Regardless, the spike the NRL enjoyed when the competition resumed on May 28 has been shortlived.
Research conducted by Dr Hunter Fujak, a lecturer at Deakin Business School, shows that bookmaker odds – which he believes are a key indicator of “outcome uncertainty” in matches and retaining viewers – are tracking in different directions for NRL and AFL fixtures.
Dr Fujak has charted the disparity in expected results in the belief fans are more likely to tune out if there is a belief a result will be lopsided. He pointed to the fact that for this weekend, four NRL games had a "line" (the points start a team gets in a head-to-head bet) of greater than 15 points, the most since 2013. The average line is now 11 points for the current round, the highest in seven years, at a time when the AFL’s average line for the year is just 10.6 points in what is a much higher-scoring game.
“The reason we use bookmaker odds is because people have an intuition as to whether the game will be good or not before it starts, based upon their prediction about how close it will be,” Dr Fujak explained. “If it’s meant to be a blowout and it stays close, people stay tuned in. If it’s meant to be close and becomes a blowout, people tune out.
“The interesting story here is that the AFL and NRL have had two completely polar opposite strategies in how they manage the game. The AFL have gone with shorter quarters to try to keep people fresh in case they need to do short turnarounds.
“Because of that, fatigue has reduced, whereas the NRL has increased fatigue. On one hand, people are pleased with the quality of the games they are seeing [in the NRL], while the changes have also exposed the quality gap between the best and worst teams.
“It’s basically the story of two organisations that have done opposite things and the early evidence suggests the AFL ratings have gone up a bit post-lockdown, while NRL [have dipped].”
V’landys said further rule changes would be considered to retain and attract viewers.
“You have got to keep reviewing your product; you can’t be apathetic,” he said.
“There are a lot of people who have come back to the sport who had left. But the difference in those viewing figures is for the casual viewers, we need to make the game more entertaining.
“You will always get your rusted-on, core fans, but it’s attracting that casual fan that provides you with that additional broadcast revenue.”
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