An insight into the types of people who bet on sport, on rugby union teams, it’s not just about celebrity status or attention-grabbing headlines. It’s about how much money it takes to make up your sleeve. While long-term success isn’t guaranteed, success is. In 2016, News Limited’s Australian business earned around $125 million profit. The same year, the company’s overall revenues were $9.1 billion. If you’re going to bet on one business for the next ten years, why would you not bet on the most profitable?
All of which brings me back to the club game. The NRL had a New Year’s Eve season rating of 1.6. That’s just 0.2 above last year’s final. To put that in context, Sky’s 2017 European football package averaged a record audience of 1.6 million viewers and included one league match broadcast on New Year’s Eve. That’s a six-fold increase on what the NRL managed in the New Year period.
The New Year’s Eve ratings would, of course, be down if rugby league didn’t attract the biggest audiences for sport. This was likely the case in Europe. But to focus solely on the fact that rugby league is still very popular in a world where Formula One is struggling to make audiences, would be a mistake. Instead, it would be more instructive to look at what the World Club Challenge, or any modern day club rugby match, actually delivers for the NRL.
In order to better gauge the popularity of the game at the top, News Limited, and the NRL, have set up a fan survey. Essentially, they want to know how many people are prepared to spend $25 on tickets to watch a rugby league game. The NRL gives every club a free ticket, which are then traded in for an equal number of digital tickets. The result is the NRL knows the actual number of people who are willing to pay for a match, rather than relying on what the RFL says.
A number of reports have also pointed to the fact that if the NRL tried to sell that ticket bundle at $25, it would actually struggle to get that price down to $20. The NRL just doesn’t know the size of the audience that will pay that sort of money, and so instead it has built a match-day business around a number of different ticket prices.
While there are many other factors that go into building the NRL’s commercial business, the number of players willing to pay to watch a game at this level is paramount. And if we are to hope for any of this to be converted into a successful television deal, the most important factor is on display on the field every week.
The Leeds-Wigan match-up last Sunday delivered a rating of 3.6, a draw with the biggest TV audience in the game’s history. Meanwhile, a story that really needs telling is that despite the popularity of the club game and the undeniable advantage that the sport enjoys over any other professional sport in the country, rugby league doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Perhaps it’s a cultural issue.