With the AFL and NRL grand finals now played over the same weekend, there’s never been greater scrutiny in comparing the television ratings of these two sport spectacles. While the on-field football contests were both highly combative, the off-field battle between these two winter football codes is arguably just as competitive.
These off-field battles can be measured with metrics such as attendances, memberships, fan numbers and television ratings; all of these critical in maintaining each league’s place in Australian culture. Television ratings are particularly vital: they underpin the multi-billion dollar price tags placed on each code’s broadcast rights. This has a flow-on effect in terms of how much advertisers pay during sport telecasts.
This season offers an unusual opportunity to compare television ratings, given the similar regional blend of teams in the finals. In each game, a local underdog (Western Bulldogs and Cronulla Sharks) played off against an interstate expansion club (Sydney Swans and Melbourne Storm).
While the aggregated ratings figures are well reported, with the AFL generating a national average audience of 4.1 million and NRL 3.7 million, considerably more information about the codes can be inferred from the television ratings data that sits beneath this top-line figure.
The battle between different codes
The AFL has placed strategic and financial investment in expanding its game into the northern markets of NSW and Queensland.
As early as 1984, following the establishment of an independent commission, the Victorian Football League produced a strategic plan in which “a programme of national expansion” was one of four key pillars.
This is unsurprising considering current figures; these two northern states not only account for 53% of the population, but are responsible for 57% of advertising spend on free-to-air television (FTA).
In addition to this, Sydney is the single largest media market in the country, accounting for 29% of advertising expenditure within Australia (Melbourne is 21%). This distribution of advertising spend between the northern and southern markets explains why the NRL is able to achieve comparable broadcast rights despite the perception of it being a sport that has its hubs in just two states.
Despite the more progressive expansion program of the AFL, whose branding and marketing communications is more focused toward being “Australia’s game”, the distribution of audience across Australia during the 2016 final confirms that both leagues still rely heavily on heartland markets. Specifically, the AFL derived 70% of its metropolitan audience from heartland markets (Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth) while the NRL similarly derived 67% of its audience from Sydney and Brisbane.
The audience share of each market during the finals (average audience divided by population) illustrates that the AFL have indeed made stronger in-roads into the northern markets, although considerable work remains before either game has an even distribution of viewers.
A sign for optimism within NRL headquarters would be that more Melbournians tuned into the NRL final to watch their team (609,000, 12.2% share) compared to Sydney and the AFL grand final (534,000, 10.7% share). However, analysis of ratings suggests that the value of grand final appearances, in terms off promoting the game in expansion markets, is diminishing.
In the case of the Sydney Swans, its local audience in Sydney for 2016 grand final was in fact the lowest of the five grand finals it has featured in since 2005. Similarly, the Melbourne Storm’s audience was the second lowest of the six it has featured in since 2006.
How engaged are viewers?
By considering the reach of a telecast (the cumulative number of unique viewers who have seen at least one minute of the program), it is possible to calculate the loyalty of an audience. When we look at this for the grand finals, there are significant differences between the codes and across markets.
The AFL appears to have a clear advantage in keeping its fans engaged. The average metropolitan viewer watched 102 of the 160 minute game telecast (64%) while the average NRL viewer watched 67 of the 120 minute game telecast (56%).
These differences however become much larger for the NRL across markets. In Sydney and Brisbane, viewers watched an average 64% of the telecast compared to only 44% in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. Therefore, the NRL not only has a smaller audience in these markets overall, but also a less engaged audience.
Free-to-air broadcasters still have large audiences for the grand finals of both codes. Indeed, the ability to achieve such ratings within one weekend is perhaps the ultimate testament to Australia’s sporting culture.
Despite these audiences, both codes remain reliant on their traditional heartland. While the AFL certainly appears to have made strong in-roads, developing a fully engaged national broadcast audience in non-traditional areas remains a generational challenge.