Both the AFL and the NRL will take comfort from the average free to air television audience figures for the 2007 premiership season, even though the figures show some worrying signs for afternoon premiership matches in both codes.
The NRL is very happy with the lift in audience since the introduction of live Friday night football (up 6.50%), and the AFL will be very happy with its Friday night ratings (up 8.10%).
But both codes will not be happy with the Sunday afternoon replay for the NRL (down 6%) and the Saturday afternoon AFL live game (down 5.70%) though the AFL gets some reassurance out of the lift in Sunday afternoon audiences (up 5%).
The NRL has been progressively moving away from afternoon football. This season, afternoon football was generally confined to two matches on Sunday afternoon – one live on Fox, one on relay on Nine. In an expanded eight match round just two were played in the afternoon, compared to two or three in the seven match round in 2006.
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The AFL audiences for the Sunday afternoon live coverage are impressive. Nine is beginning to suffer because its NRL Sunday afternoon coverage is a replay, starting at 4pm and chock-a-block with ads.
The NRL is very happy with its Fox Sports coverage, given that it was shoved on to Fox Sports Three to give the AFL one of the Fox Sports channels, resulting in a massive audience boost for AFL on Fox. But the average of 164,000 (up 60%) still trails the NRL average of 245,000 (up 10%).
A real winner for the NRL has been Monday night football on Fox Sports. And, surprisingly, the crowds at the Monday night games have been exceptional, highlighted by over 48,000 at a Broncos home game at Suncorp Stadium. On four nights the Fox Sports average audience exceeded 300,000.
The NRL showed its hand last week when it rescheduled the final Monday night game to Sunday night (after discussions with Fox Sports) to give all eight teams in the first finals round five clear days preparation.
I would not be at all surprised if the NRL did not follow the ALF lead in introducing a twilight/early evening Sunday match – but that would probably require the Sunday match on Nine to be shown live, something both Nine and NRL clubs have resisted.
Whether club supporters like it or not – and many don’t – afternoon NRL matches have an increasingly uncertain future. That’s been the case for some years — these only add to the uncertainty.