How do we get bottoms on seats?

Filed in NRL by on March 13, 2014

If you’ve been following Ladies who League over the last few days, you’ll have noticed that we’ve been talking about NRL crowd numbers. We’re not the only ones talking about either – a whole series of articles have appeared in mainstream media asking the same question, why aren’t NRL fans walking through the door.

Here at Ladies who League we are here to tackle the big issues – crowd attendance is a big one at the moment. However, while it is really easy to identify a problem, it is much harder to identify a solution. So today we’re thinking about what the NRL can do to get more people through the door.

First of all – the references to the crowds of other sports I feel needs to stop. It needs to be recognised that NRL is its own sport and very different to the A-League and the AFL. The comparisons between the AFL and the NRL aren’t useful. As a described in my blog yesterday, Melbourne is a city which lives and breathes AFL while Sydney will never be a city which leaves and breathes NRL. The NRL will always be competing with the Rugby Union, the AFL and the A-league (for part of the season at least).

There have also been a series of comments about the crowds which attend the Western Sydney Wanderers game. For those who have been reading the blog over the last few months, you’ll know that I don’t think these comparisons are fair either. You’ll see what I mean when you read this article.

One big thing which I believe is preventing people from attending the football live is the cost. For most families to attend the football, it needs to be a carefully planned and considered financial decision and probably an outing which can only happen a couple of times a year. At Parramatta Stadium on the weekend it cost $45 for one adult  to attend the game. When 2 adults attend with children, of course, this cost significantly increases. Children get hungry too and often need to be fed and by the time the night has ended – the cost borne is far too great.

How can we fix this? I’ve had a couple of people come to me with ideas.

The first one is – including a discount on the cost of food and beverages for people who have signed up as members to their clubs. While this might appear to be a good idea in theory, it is impossible in practice. Why? Because most stadiums have outsourced their food and beverage services to external companies, which means that for an idea like this to work the catering company would need to enter a separate contract. The catering companies aren’t particularly interested in getting more fans through the door either, but are instead a business out to make a profit. This is one idea which is unlikely to work.

A more plausible idea which I think would help to reduce costs and help boost memberships and thereby increase attendance, is to include the cost of public transport with membership packs. As a Parramatta fan, I know I am furious when I am made to attend ANZ Stadium, call it a home game and decide whether to catch public transport or pay a ridiculous $25 in parking.

For Western Sydney Wanderers fans, ticketed membership includes free government public transport to Pirtek Stadium. I think this is a brilliant initiative and one which the NRL should look to adopt.

Any way that will reduce the cost of attending games for fans should be looked into – perhaps double headers are another consideration as well because it would give fans more bang for their buck.

The second issue which obviously needs consideration is scheduling. On Thursday night, the Sydney Roosters and South Sydney Rabbitohs played and pulled, what has been called a disappointing crowd.

Let’s think about this for a minute. Thursday nights are problematic at best – for professionals or people with children, it’s simply not viable. But forgetting all that – most Roosters fans are based much closer to Allianz Stadium. I feel that it was a big mistake getting these teams to play at ANZ Stadium on a Thursday night.

I’m proud of the NRL for deciding to schedule more games on the weekend and for bringing back Saturday afternoon games and early evening games on a Sunday night. These are time slots which are family friendly. The more family friendly time slots we have, the more families that will attend games and its families that we need to get through the door.

Next, let’s talk about memberships because if the NRL wants to see improvement then we need to raise our membership numbers.

In the AFL – membership is seen differently to the NRL. I’m not suggesting that the AFL model is one which the NRL can simply adopt, but we need to consider how the AFL have been so successful.

Membership to an AFL team is seen as part of the deal – AFL fans seem to better understand the importance of signing up to be a member of your club and it’s for this reason that the AFL membership numbers blow the NRL out of the water.

Perhaps fans need to be better educated about how important it is to sign up as a member. Why do fans need to be members? How does being a member actually financially support your club? Where does the money go? At the moment, clubs are doing their best to make it more financially viable for people to be members with better discounts on membership, more opportunities to meet the players, better membership packs etc, but the bottom line is that until people recognise how important it is for them to be signed up as members of their clubs, crowd numbers aren’t going to improve. Clubs need to do a better job at explaining to their members why it is so important to sign up as members of both the team and the leagues club. This is even more important when you consider the financial viability of our clubs and the financial pressures which our clubs face each and every year.

I’ll also talk about game day here a bit too.

This is the area I find most difficult because I’m not sure how the NRL can improve its game day experience.

I feel like the NRL game day model is tired.

As a female I want the NRL to strive to do more for me. I feel like the presence of cheerleaders is old school and takes most people back to the good old days at Cumberland Oval. We often talk about wanting women to be involved at the higher echelons of our game and for women to be making decisions about our game which will make it better however we’re confronted every week with women dancing in revealing outfits. So when most people think about women in the NRL they think about cheerleaders instead of thinking of Raelene Castle, or Debbie Spillane or Catharine Lumby (and if you’re reading this article thinking who are any of these women, then the problem is worse than what I thought.)

Getting more fireworks and more bands at half time isn’t going to fix the problem. So what will?

Perhaps the NRL needs to take a financial hit before we can get any better. We need to get kids though the door. Get our players out to schools, hand out passes to games, get more kids running around the field at half time, get Junior League teams showcased and heralded at the games. Kids needs to be praised as our players of tomorrow and made to feel like they are a part of the game they love so much.

Kids are the next generation of league fans and we need to get them to the grounds.

One more area I will mention briefly is the focus on the NRL match as a TV product. So much work has been done in the last few years to make our game sensational to watch at home on television (HD television, games on Thursday and Monday night and a sensational new Fox Sports ad). The NRL has clearly made its focus NRL as a TV product and this is reflected in our crowd numbers and our fans who feel neglected. It’s not enough for the NRL to make projections about crowd attendance and ask people to attend – it’s simply not enough.

Finally, the NRL, for the last few seasons has faced a much more systemic problem. This next part of the blog does not mean to pit fans of different teams against each other, but is what I see as fact. In the past couple of seasons there have been a couple of teams which have underperformed like the Parramatta Eels, the Canterbury Bulldogs, the St George Illawarra Dragons and the Wests Tigers.

Traditionally these are teams that have pulled crowds. No matter what anyone says, when the Eels and Bulldogs are performing at their best the crowds come to watch and the atmosphere is always electric.

When you have teams underperforming, the crowds also begin to decline, which is a real shame.

To remedy that problem, we begin to get into talks about compensating clubs which produce Juniors and considering whether the real reason these teams aren’t performing is simply because they aren’t good enough or whether there are other factors at play.

This is a complicated issue so I would really love to hear your thoughts.


Ladies who League

P.S. Pop by and say hello –

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.