NRL chief Dave Smith speaks to the media in Sydney on Monday. Photo: Tamara Dean
The AFL faces an even tougher fight to win the northern markets after the Australian Rugby League Commission vowed to tip in an extra $200 million into the sport over the next four years.
Buoyed by its $1.2 billion broadcast rights deal, ARLC chief executive Dave Smith announced on Monday a series of measures he hopes will maintain the NRL's stranglehold on its key markets - NSW and Queensland.
Citing participation numbers around the country, Smith said: ''Wind the clock forward five years and we will be the biggest sporting community in the country.
''By that point we will hopefully have gone through the current rights deal and see a big uptake in the number of people playing the game and the number of people watching the game, and that will add more value to our rights.
''Our results show that rugby league is investing more in the game than ever before and now [it] is truly positioned to enter a period of growth that will make it the strongest and healthiest it has ever been.''
This includes a $120 million growth fund to help develop grassroots competitions, NRL clubs and stadium infrastructure, while former AFL commissioner Graeme Samuel, now an ARL commissioner, will head a sub-committee charged with overseeing what has been termed as an $80 million war chest.
While Sydney Swans chief executive Andrew Ireland said the NSW market was big enough for the three winter codes to co-exist, including rugby union, he admits rugby league now has the resources to match the might of the AFL.
''Just in a general sense, I don't think people in Melbourne understand how competitive it is here when you have got the NRL competition headquarters here and the bulk of their teams based in Sydney,'' he said, also citing the impact rugby union's Wallabies and Waratahs have on the city.
''For the past couple of decades the AFL has been advantaged by, one, having the commission in place, there is no doubt about that. Then they [AFL] got the TV rights to the level they did in the earlier years and the NRL hadn't - now the NRL certainly has the resources to match it with the AFL.
''There is little doubt now they [ARLC] are going to try to do that. At the moment, not having teams in South Australia and Western Australia, their focus will be, I would imagine, to work hard in the [northern] markets they want to stay strong in. They are going to do a lot of things better than what they have been able to do.''
With match attendances slipping about 3per cent and television ratings dropping by 2per cent last year, Smith signalled the NRL's intent at its annual meeting in Sydney.
The ARLC revealed a record $45.3 million surplus from revenue of $314 million for 2013, while the grants to the 16 NRL clubs increased from $76 million to almost $120 million. Funding for state leagues and affiliates increased 18 per cent to about $17million.
Brisbane Lions chief executive Malcolm Holmes agreed with Ireland in that his state was big enough for all codes to co-exist but admitted the Lions and Queensland AFL faced particular challenges in competing against what he described as the ''code of choice''.
''They [NRL] have always been very strong in Queensland, very organised. They have got the Broncos, who are arguably one of the strongest sporting brands in Australasia,'' he said.
Holmes said the rebuilding Lions were working closely with the AFL to convert suburban and country-based participants into regular attendees at AFL matches.
''The AFL has now approximately 155,000 people playing the game here in Queensland, which is fantastic. Then you add the volunteers and mums and dads involved, [making that] probably over 400,000,'' he said.
''From the Lions, our membership is growing, we are on track to be up from last year.''
But the challenge facing the club was reinforced when Lions' head of coaching, Peter Schwab, said on Monday the club generally received less media attention in Brisbane than Melbourne's sole NRL side, the Storm, did in its home town.