The fans: League crowds have fallen by 2.9 per cent in 2013.

The fans: League crowds have fallen by 2.9 per cent in 2013. Photo: Anthony Johnson

Rugby league's take on a projected 2.9 per cent fall in crowds this year is akin to the response of those pathetic Ruddite federal parliamentarians who claim the election result would have been worse had Julia Gillard remained prime minister.

''Our crowds should have been down more,'' was the cry from NRL headquarters over its home-and-away attendance figures, mimicking the Labor spin on its lowest result in history. But unlike acting opposition leader Chris Bowen, who boasts the return of Kevin Rudd saved seats in western Sydney and Queensland, the NRL admits the surge of South Sydney to the top of the ladder has not saved the code from a dip in spectators. The ''when Souths are going well, the game is going well'' refrain does not stand up, certainly in terms of the premiership ladder and attendance figures.

Over the 2008-12 period, the Rabbitohs' home-and-away attendance has been consistent, with their minimum average crowd of 15,630 superior to the bottom attendance of 11 clubs and only 100 spectators shy of the worst five-year gates of the Bulldogs and Eels. This year's South Sydney stellar average of 21,668, couldn't cover the overall NRL fall of 2.9 per cent. It took the poor performance of historically big crowd-pullers - the Broncos, Dragons, Wests Tigers and Eels - to achieve that.

The Broncos' attendance fell 5.2 per cent (from 32,153 to 30,480) but the Dragons dropped a massive 24.4 per cent, Wests Tigers 29.4 per cent and the Eels 25.9 per cent. This year's average crowd in the NRL was 15,940, but to put this in historical perspective we have to look at 2005, the first year average attendances topped 16,000.

In that year, the top four on the ladder were (in order), the Eels, Dragons, Broncos and Wests Tigers and their big following helped produce an average NRL crowd of 16,458. Coming into round 25 this year, the bottom four clubs were the Broncos, Wests Tigers, Dragons and Eels. The Broncos then won a match, meaning by the end of the home-and-away season, for the first time, four of the bottom five positions on the ladder were occupied by traditional big crowd-pullers.

In the past 10 years, the worst result has been for only one of these four to finish in the bottom four. The Bulldogs, another club that consistently has turnstiles clicking, suffered a fall of 7.2 per cent (from last year's average of 21,107 to 19,590), despite making the finals. The Roosters, whose crowds rose 54.3 per cent from 12,548 to 19,368, along with the Rabbitohs (up 17.8 per cent), could not offset the fall by the bottom four. Only five clubs registered increases - the Raiders were up 0.4 per cent and the Sharks 1.8 per cent - with the Storm (27.9 per cent) the only NRL club to achieve Rabbitohs/Roosters-like rises.

Fixed scheduling must take some responsibility for the fall. The NRL set the draw for the first 20 rounds, unlike previous years where the broadcasters scheduled matches on a five-week cycle. However, the broadcasters did have a major input into the schedule, taking the blockbusters away from the early rounds and scheduling lesser-quality matches around Origin, producing a dip from which the code did not recover. To be fair, a motive in agreeing to one Friday night match after Origin, rather than double-headers, was to limit player burnout.

There were also more blow-out games this year, with 32 games having a margin of 30 points or more, compared with 18 last year. Finals numbers offer another comparison with Labor's election results. In the past 10 years, there have been only five occasions where a Sydney week-one finals match has attracted a crowd of more than 20,000.

This is a low base, similar to the number of seats Gillard had following the 2010 election where Rudd and his leaks pitted Queensland against her. But with all four games held in Sydney's main stadiums last weekend, the crowd was 21,000 for Rabbitohs-Storm; 32,000 for the double header and 23,000 for Bulldogs-Newcastle.

Unlike the Ruddites, the NRL is not crowing about the figures, lest it fuel the Queensland conspiracy theories that they want an all-Sydney grand final. Instead, NRL chief executive Dave Smith was facing up to the reality of the decline in regular-season attendance, saying, ''This has been a difficult year with unique challenges. We've seen some of our biggest-drawing teams struggle on the field, fans are adjusting to the fixed draw, there is the ongoing ASADA investigation and we have some clubs with some internal matters to address. Importantly, we are already working with clubs on strategies to grow our fan base and double club membership over the next five years.''