A tale of two codes: How the AFL and NRL numbers have diverged post-covid
As Australia watched the final of the Women’s Cricket World Cup, Covid-19 encircled the globe with what was to become a cataclysm of cancelled and postponed events. For the fans, 2020 has represented a disjointed experience, a change in viewing habits, and impacted broadcasting schedules like never before.
- The real concern for sports was how the disruption might alter sport in a post-shutdown world. Would people easily revert back to old habits?
- A big test of this in Australia will be the Grand Finals for the AFL and NRL this weekend.
- One code has gained ground, the other has been pushed back.
Since covid hit, the fortunes of the footie and the rugby have somewhat diverged, potentially shifting the goalposts for advertisers and their agencies.
The good news story is the AFL. Fans have remained loyal to the sport and one would expect TV viewership numbers to experience a bump given restricted attendance at live matches. But that bump turned into a mountain: 2020 free-to-air viewership figures (5 main metro cities) exceeding the first two weeks of the 2019 finals by up to 34%.
Individual team support has also spiked. One might have expected the Brisbane Lions to increase its supporter base with their improved on-field performance and the Queensland-based AFL covid hub, yet even Adelaide, slogging through its worst ever season, experienced heightened team support (fans of the team, not necessarily members). Fans, knowing the pain of loss, are taking the opportunity to support and watch their team when they can.
But what of the NRL?
With Peter V’Landys at the helm, the code ran an aggressive push for the sport to resume, having set and met the 28 May re-launch date. Many commentators questioned that timing with the ABC summing up his approach as ‘boom or bust’. The results are certainly not a bust, but it has not quite been the boom experienced by the AFL.
What we have seen is softening passion levels for Rugby League post-lockdown. While no sport has been immune to covid protocol breaches, its fair to say NRL players and coaches have featured more than most, while off-field, non-sporting news tended to fill the space between games, contributing to - if not fully explaining - the decline.
Where the AFL saw fairly consistent increases in team support, the NRL has experienced erratic changes – some clubs such as the Storm and the Eels strengthened their fanbase, while others have seen a drop-off in support, more in line with their on-field performance. This performance has filtered into the free-to-air viewing figures for the first weeks of the NRL Finals series with consistently lower year-on-year viewership exacerbating a consistent decline in viewership for the last five years. The response to the NRL post-lockdown, then, is consistent with the longer-term decline experienced by the sport – and not the boost experienced by the AFL.
One bright point for the NRL is the viewership performance noted from Foxtel’s linear and steaming platforms. Week 2 saw record numbers, giving Fox League its highest rating weekend of NRL Finals Footy, demonstrating the increasing importance to sport of streaming platforms.
Let’s hope the Grand Final and the upcoming State of Origin Series can mark a turnaround in these free-to-air numbers for the NRL, and the AFL can capitalise on its unusual timing (twilight start time) and location (Brisbane’s Gabba) to connect with more fans than ever before.