Where are the fans?

0 Submitted by on Tue, 15 April 2014, 22:48

NRL CEO David Smith recently announced details of the NRL’s five year strategic plan. The plan included the following key performance indicators:

  • Doubling the club membership numbers from 200,000 to 400,000 by 2017;
  • Growing crowd attendance from the current average of 13,000 to 20,000  by 2017;
  • Increasing player participation from 555,000 to 700,000 across all age groups;
  • Reaching 5.8 Million social media participants.

A little ambitious? Perhaps. Time will tell. However, he’s not off to a good start with crowd numbers dwindling in comparison with previous years. Round one figures show a total of 112,193 compared to 158,678 in 2013 (29% drop) and 201,205 in 2011. After four rounds, the average crowd numbers was 16,000 per game compared to 18,300 (12.5% drop) for the same period last year. Tigers v Cowboys at Campbelltown drew a mere 6,456 fans. It’s also worth noting that TV ratings also dropped (9.7%) in round one. Whilst the figures aren’t cause for panic, they are somewhat disconcerting and beg the question as to why the numbers are so sluggish?

I’ve heard countless opinions as to why crowd attendance figures are down. Here are just some:

  • The weather – Let’s start with the easy target. We love blaming the weather for everything. Although, we can’t escape the fact that Sydney-siders will not step outside the comfort of their homes as soon as there’s a spit of rain. I guess, that’s a cultural thing. Can’t be helped. Or can it? (more on that one later).
  • Poor scheduling – I still can’t believe there was no fewer than 7 games played in Sydney for round 1! I can’t see that ever happening again.
  • Competition – A-League, in particular, has certainly put a dent into the sporting market share. Then, of course, there’s the ever present threat posed by the Sydney Swans and now, the GWS Giants AFL teams.
  • Oversaturated Sydney market – There are too many teams in Sydney. We all know that. Nine Sydney teams + Canberra and Newcastle. That’s 11 of 16 teams clustered in the one geographic region competing for limited sporting dollars.
  • Live TV – Why waste time and money, wait in car park or train queues in the pouring rain, only to be seated behind some loud-mouth larrikins and watch your team lose, when you can watch the game in the warm comfort of your lounge room?
  • Pricing – By the time you pay for petrol / train tickets, parking, admission, merchandise and ridiculously exorbitant catering costs, it can cost anywhere between $150-$350 for a family (depending on seating) for a night at the footy!
  • Smartphones / Apps – It is convenient and free to get live updates from any number of apps. You can still meet your social obligations whilst keeping up to date with scores.
  • Pay TV – Foxtel is considered more of a luxury item than a necessity. So, during difficult economic times, pay tv is usually the first item that suffers from budgetary cut backs. In the NRL “heartland” of the Western Suburbs of Sydney, most people can’t afford Pay TV and we’re talking about a majority of the die-hard league followers.
  • Monday Night football – School nights will never attract a large crowd. Certainly not in winter.
  • Foundation clubs under-performing – There’s an unwritten rule: When the Eels, Dragons, Tigers, Bulldogs and Rabbitohs are under-performing, then crowd numbers are down. I’ve excluded Roosters and Eagles because, despite recent success, their fans just don’t travel.
  • Phasing-out of suburban grounds – As a die-hard league fan, I must admit I love the atmosphere that only suburban grounds can provide. The Tigers  v Eagles game at Leichardt Oval last week is a case in point. Fans were only too happy to brave the driving rain to experience the traditional venue. I can understand the logic behind streamlining games at bigger venues such as ANZ Stadium. It makes complete economic and logistical sense. But, is it what the fans want? Clearly, the Leichardt game suggests fans love their “spiritual home”. There’s nothing worse than observing 60,000 empty seats at ANZ Stadium. ANZ Stadium, whilst providing the creature comforts, is a little too sanitised for my liking. I would rather be part of a 20,000 crowd at Parramatta Stadium (which I consider as one of the best venues to watch a game) than 20,000 at ANZ. There’s also the added advantage of visiting the nearby leagues club before and after the game. Why not upgrade suburban venues hence use the bigger stadiums for blockbusters?

So what’s the solution to low crowd figures? Being from a business background, I believe the solution lies in the adherence to the time proven business fundamentals of Quality-Service-Price. No business, be it a corporate or sporting organisation, can possibly succeed unless all three principles are followed.


Fans from all sporting denominations will always turn up in numbers where there is quality on offer. Look at how many people turned up to Randwick Racecourse when Black Caviar was on show. I also refer to the recent sell-out Baseball game at the SCG. It doesn’t just apply to sport, but all forms of Entertainment. Just look at how quickly Coldplay tickets get snapped up when they tour. Fans will always want to see high quality, competitive games. State of Origin is the pinnacle event of our league calender for that very reason. Having said that, I believe the quality standard of most NRL games is very high. Yes, there are the occasional blowouts, but have a look at the ladder as it stands today. The competition has never been more even. The only aspect that mars the quality of the game is the dreaded wrestling tactics and the predictability / over-structured style of attack deployed by most teams. The new rules this year have encouraged more football and lessened the “wrestling” tackles.


Service, per se, embodies every aspect of the game day experience. From travelling to game, to the in-stadium experience and also the convenience upon exiting games. The whole gambit of issues needs to be considered. Let’s fix up the “to and from games” issue first. I understand that most pre-purchased tickets nowadays double up as free train and bus tickets. Brilliant. Now, can we do something about the car parks? It must be compulsory to prepay your parking ticket so that, upon leaving the ground, there is no delay due to the boom gate exits. I would like to see traffic conditions altered in a way to make it easy and convenient to exit the stadium. There is nothing worse than sitting in a car for 30-60 minutes just trying to get out of the ground (especially when your team loses!).

Game day is all about creating the right experience for the fans and, in particular, targeting families and large groups. Rugby league is in a battle with, not only other sports, but every form of entertainment. In a competitive market where there is limited dollars, you must stick your head above the competition and be noticed. Marketing must now think more laterally than ever, in order to acquire significant market share. For example, the NFL have recently unveiled plans to better utilise technology to offer better In-Stadium experience ( http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Journal/Issues/2014/03/24/Leagues-and-Governing-Bodies/NFL-tech.aspx ). A new APP called “Experience” has been developed to allow fans to upgrade seats, gain access to their team and get in-seat visits from players and cheerleaders. Now, we’re talking!  Why stop there? Fans want to be part of the “Inner-sanctum”. How about offering members access to, say, post match interviews, pre-game dressing room “pep talks”, meeting the players on the field after the game (kids love running onto the field), home party visits (eg birthdays). How about free Wi-Fi at all grounds? How about better on field entertainment? The list goes on…

Ultimately, consumers are inclined to make decisions based on the option that provides the better value for money. If the NRL are to win the sporting dollar, they must provide a compelling reason (value proposition – in marketing terms) for the consumer (the fan) to attend the game. Why should I go to a game when I can go to the movies, or simply watch at home? The answer lies in providing a match day experience that I simply can’t obtain by staying at home. Value adding is the key.


I don’t know how many time Ray Hadley has posed the question – “would you prefer 10,000 fans at $20 per fan or 20,000 fans at $10 per fan?”. Same revenue, twice the atmosphere AND flow on effects for catering and merchandise. Makes sense? It’s the easiest fix in the world. Drop the price! Watch the fans roll in. Incentivate families and groups. Celebrate “parties” and occasions. Give fans reasons to come in numbers and make it economically feasible.

We’ve got a long way to go go before we meet the lofty standards of AFL. However, a strategy based on creating bigger memberships hence providing not only members, but the general public, with an irresistible game day experience will see fans return in droves. The competition, as it stands at the moment, is the most exciting in years. Let’s not rest on our laurels. Let’s get some clever marketing executives who will launch the NRL into the new era of game day entertainment.



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