The Unthinkable – Should the AFL and NRL work together?

They’re the two stalwarts of the Australian sporting landscape; the AFL and the NRL. While there are certain areas where one code is more popular, in order to maximize crowds and continued engaged interest at both events, the two codes must begin working together.

Many times during this season, and on occasion during their respective finals series, some fans have been deep in deliberation between which games to attend. Especially in Melbourne, with the MCG and AAMI Park only 600 metres from each other, and games starting within half an hour of each other.

Take Friday the 21st of September as an example. A crowd of nearly 95,000 made their way into the MCG to see the blockbuster preliminary final between Richmond and Collingwood. Across the bridge, AAMI Park hosted the Melbourne Storm and the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, as the crowd reached in excess of 26,500.

But this problem is more about the two codes being played simultaneously, robbing devout fans a chance to see two respective games. During Week One of the finals, the Sydney Swans and the Greater Western Sydney Giants played at the SCG, while the Sydney Roosters and the Sharks played less than 300 metres away, half an hour after the AFL match finished. While the Sydney derby was on, at ANZ Stadium, the Penrith Panthers and New Zealand Warriors played (it got 17,158 people attending, but the Panthers home ground, Panthers Stadium has a capacity of 22,500).

There was a total crowd of 40,350 at the SCG, while 24,588 made their way into Allianz Stadium. Some of those NRL fans could have been from the AFL. Maybe none of them were, but the point is, if both codes have games running next to each other, it might be a logical choice to offer Sydney-siders a ticket offer, allowing them entry to both games.

This method would increase viewership, crowd attendance, revenue and importantly, a greater level of engagement for both codes.

While the AFL’s overall attendance has broken the all-time record during the home and away season, averaging 32,852 (6,893,909 across 198 matches) people, it was a only a 2.3% increase on the 2017 season, a year where crowd figures rose 6.8 percent. The last time an overall AFL home and away attendance fell below 6.2 million was in 2004 (5,909,836 through 176 games).

The NRL’s 25-round home and away season saw an average crowd of 15,260 (2,929,992 across 192 matches). It’s a 2.3 percent increase from a 2017 season that dipped from below an average of 15,000 for the first time since 2004.

While the NRL doesn’t have the 100,000-strong MCG seats to play with, you could argue that the above figures are fair for the league. The biggest stadium that the NRL uses is ANZ Stadium with a capacity of 84,000. It houses five tenants (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, South Sydney Rabbitohs, Wests Tigers and the Parramatta Eels).

We have seen the interaction between two prolific Australian sporting competitions before. Earlier this year during the Australian Open, National Basketball League team Melbourne United scheduled a match during the tennis tournament.

Tennis Australia utilises United’s home court at Hisense Arena (now Melbourne Arena) for some of its biggest matches over the two-week grand slam, but gave a green light for the NBL side to transform the clay court to a wooden court for a night.

For just $60 for adults and $10 for children, people were able to obtain an Australian Open ground pass for the day, and receive a ticket into the NBL’s ‘AO Game’. Only 7,306 people made their way through the gates at Hisense Arena, but it covers almost 4,000 more spectators than what the State Netball and Hockey Centre, where it was originally scheduled to be played.

United, in eight home games averaged a crowd of 8,238, so their game during the Australian Open is down on their average. The game however, against the Cairns Taipans was pushed back by 10 days, and allowed United to fly to Auckland to play the New Zealand Breakers seven days earlier than originally scheduled.

At the time of the announcement in December 2017, NBL chief executive Jeremy Leoliger said it was rare to see two sporting codes work together and innovate the experiences. He added “they usually see each other as competitors”, but looked forward to changing the way fans get on board with developments.

While the AFL and NRL don’t reschedule games, when both organisations’ fixtures are released or even when there is preliminary planning, it should be done with arrangements made to have the fans enjoy the ‘sporting capital of Australia’, with better access to more codes.

It’s no secret that opposing sporting codes are adopting similar techniques to entice more active fans to their respective sport. Earlier this month, Football Federation Australia announced a Big Bash League influence for the A-League with music and lights to be featured at stoppages such as goal kicks or corner kicks.

It’s hard to argue with the sanctity of an elite sport like soccer and how this move could diminish the credibility the A-League has in amongst declining attendances and TV viewership. The AFL and NRL don’t need to worry too much about a declining interest, especially in built-up and established areas such as Melbourne, and likewise Sydney and Brisbane for NRL mostly.

When thinking about the reasons codes would not work cohesively, broadcast deals and the locations of stadiums come into consideration, as do the stresses of working out how to get to and from the sporting heartland.

On the outskirts of the Melbourne CBD (and within a 10 minute walk from the closest station) are the MCG and Marvel Stadium. Quite easy to get to with no immediate foot traffic holding one up. AAMI Park is a stone’s throw from Richmond Station, but without a properly designed walkway such as the path through Yarra Park.

In Sydney, ANZ Stadium and Spotless Stadium at Homebush are available via a branched rail line, similar to Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne, as it too is inconveniently located away from the CBD. Allianz Stadium is 20 minutes via foot from Central Station and to find parking is an absolute nightmare.

It could be reason enough for most NRL fans to stay at home. The top-viewed NRL Week 2 finals match was between the Rabbitohs and the St George Illawarra Dragons, with 943,000 tuning in. The highest-viewed AFL Week 2 finals match was Hawthorn versus Melbourne. 1,200,000 saw Melbourne go through to a preliminary final.

These games are hyped up, but for Melbourne tragics celebrating their first finals appearance in 12 years, Geelong fans welcoming Gary Ablett home and Collingwood supporters returning to finals amid speculation last year that the club would fall, it’s memorable stories like these that get hearts racing, fists pumping and one team holding aloft the cup in September.

Broadcast deals are going for plenty, with both codes renewing for more and more years, for more and more money. A Friday night and Saturday timeslot is most popular with broadcasters, as the opportune time to schedule blockbuster games so families can sit together to cheer or friends can meet at the pub in unison with other die-hards.

The AFL hoped to get a one-up on the NRL when it introduced Thursday night finals
football two seasons ago. It opened up the weekend so it didn’t feel clustered and fans could enjoy the weekend and spirit of finals football that little bit longer. While a lot don’t agree with this timeslot, it works and introduces the finals earlier to much more support around town.

Finals will always sell a lot of tickets. It’s the basic premise of working hard after a long season and equally, teams and fans being rewarded.

Though, if the NRL wanted to bring more crowds to their games in order to prevent full bays remaining vacant, it would be ideal to work with a competitor code. The codes have the power to change anything, and conversely the AFL could use the NRL’s advantage in Sydney or Brisbane to improve the opportunity for additional support in those markets as well.

If people are faced with a choice of what they grew up with and love against something they have a passing interest in, the choice is a foregone conclusion. But if they’re able to view both, perhaps it would benefit all involved.