NRL trumps AFL in TV ratings war
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NRL trumps AFL in TV ratings war

Television ratings for the NRL season have eclipsed the AFL’s audiences for the first time since 2010, reflecting the closeness of games in the rugby league competition compared to AFL, where the frequency of one-sided matches continued with last weekend’s three semi-final blow-outs.

The NRL has also bucked the overall trend in the Australian TV market, where cumulative ratings have experienced a decline of 7.2 per cent in total over the last year. The NRL’s overall TV ratings are flat at 0.3 per cent to the end of round 25, compared to the end of the 2017 regular season.

The Broncos' season may be over but they remain the highest-watched team nationally across both the NRL and AFL.

The Broncos' season may be over but they remain the highest-watched team nationally across both the NRL and AFL.

Photo: AAP

The AFL’s TV ratings have fallen considerably, with a 12.8 per cent decline to the end of their regular season.

Cumulative season audience figures for the two codes highlight the NRL’s dominance. The NRL’s cumulative audience this season was 94.3 million, compared to the AFL’s live audience of 89.2m. This excludes State of Origin figures. If the data for those three games are added, rugby league’s audience for the 2018 season was more than 105m.

Although the AFL season has two fewer rounds, it has one additional game per round in its 18-team competition, meaning 12 more games for the television networks to cover.

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The average free-to-air audience for the NRL was 600,181 in 2018, compared to 307,793 for the AFL (down 13 per cent on 2017), acknowledging that the AFL has cross-over timeslots and doesn’t go free to air with the same games nationally.

The average subscription TV audience (Foxtel) for the NRL was 240,879 in 2018 (up 3 per cent on 2017), compared to 184,821 for the AFL (down 7 per cent on 2017).

Queensland continues to be a rugby league state. The highest watched team nationally across both the NRL and AFL is the Broncos, with a live audience of more than 18m over the season. The second-highest watched team nationally is the Cowboys – with nearly 15m viewers over the season, despite almost winning the wooden spoon.

By comparison, the Swans have the AFL’s highest TV audience, with 14.3m viewers over the season. This is equivalent to the Roosters in the NRL, the code’s third highest-ranking team, also with 14.3m cumulative viewers.

The Warriors' resurgence resulted in a spike in their TV ratings in New Zealand.

The Warriors' resurgence resulted in a spike in their TV ratings in New Zealand.

Photo: AAP

While New Zealand is a rugby union nation, the Warriors' performance this year has helped lift viewing numbers. Total viewership of NRL on Sky in New Zealand is up by 21 per cent, year on year.

The NRL’s growing share of total TV in Sydney and Brisbane points to the code continuing to be attractive to the bidding networks. Simulcast games (Nine and Fox) had a 25.8 per cent share of audience in 2018, up 0.3 percentage points over the year. Subscription games (Fox) had a 9.3 per cent share of audience in 2018, up 0.5 percentage points over the year.

While the NRL’s digital department has been criticised by clubs for resources allocated to it and questions asked regarding its viability as an alternative to Fox, its audience is experiencing strong growth. Average streams of games per round increased by 108 per cent between 2017 and 2018.

Success on the field, together with the NRL taking control of scheduling, has given some NSW clubs a boost in TV audience. The Dragons are up by 26 per cent year on year, Knights have increased by 22 per cent and Roosters are up by 20 per cent.

The final round was a blockbuster, with an audience of nearly 4.5m, offering promise for the semi-finals ahead. Fox Sports recorded two of their top 10 sports audiences of the year in round 25.

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Nearly one million people watched the Storm take on the Panthers on the Friday night. Johnathan Thurston’s final match drew 400,000, Fox Sports’ highest audience for the year across the four major football codes and the third highest-rating regular-season NRL game since 2011.

While the AFL can boast superior spectator numbers, the NRL recorded its highest crowds over the regular season since 2014.

The NRL’s average crowd of 15,579 for the season was a 3.8 per cent increase on last year, acknowledging the positive impact of double-headers.

The NRL’s top three strongest improvements in crowds came from:

  • Warriors, average crowd of 18,999, a 62 per cent increase on last year
  • Rabbitohs, average crowd of 17,574, a 61 per cent increase on last year
  • Wests Tigers, average crowd of 17,291, a 28 per cent increase on last year

The NRL’s strongest movers, not impacted by double-headers, are:

  • Dragons, average crowd of 16,606, a 25 per cent increase on last year
  • Knights, average crowd of 18,974,a 21 per cent increase on last year
  • Panthers, average crowd of 14,196, a 10 per cent increase on last year.