If anyone has any doubt just how much stronger a position the AFL is in than the NRL, then a look at the “expansion” plans of both codes will surely end it.

Today the NRL will meet with the Chief Executives of the 16 premiership clubs to discuss the critical financial position of most Sydney-based clubs, and one or two that are not Sydney-based. The word “expansion” most certainly won’t be on the agenda.

At the same time, the AFL is forging ahead with plans to establish premiership clubs in Western Sydney and on the Gold Coast by 2012.

It has now emerged that one of the factors driving expansion is increased television exposure just in time for the start of the AFL’s next television rights agreement. And the AFL is considering adopting key parts of the scheduling that the NRL has used since its current television rights agreement came into effect last year.

Under that agreement there are two games on Channel Nine on Friday night — one live — and an additional live game on pay TV on Monday night. While some NRL clubs are less than enthusiastic about Monday night football, it rates highly, and gives the game much needed extra coverage.

While the current crisis facing the NRL — and its clubs — is driven by the downturn in gaming machine revenue in licensed clubs, embarrassingly low attendance at matches at ANZ stadium (formerly the Olympic stadium) is forcing the NRL and clubs to consider massive reductions in admission charges. The “official” attendance at three games played at ANZ stadium over the last weekend, and last night, averaged less than 10,000.

The problem for the NRL is that there is no ready solution to the financial woes of an increasing number of clubs. The profits of the clubs that fund most Sydney teams in the NRL have been hit by a combination of state taxes and the impact of smoking bans. There is not much chance of any relief on the former — and zero chance on the latter.

But the NRL is going to confront an even greater problem. Its television rights deal will be up for re-negotiation at about the same time as the AFL contract, and that is where the AFL is positioning itself far more effectively.

The AFL will be able to offer an extra game each weekend, and a stronger presence in two important markets — Western Sydney and South East Queensland. The NRL, at this stage, will only be able to offer more of the same.

The AFL rights are shared by Ten and Seven. They are in the box seat to retain them. That means the NRL is likely to be left with just one option — its current rights holder, Channel Nine.

The current “gap” between the rights is around $200 million, in favour of the AFL. That gap is enabling the AFL to fund its aggressive push into NRL territory. And here is the nub of the problem the NRL is likely to face in a couple of years’ time. AFL clubs believe the new television rights deal, boosted by two more teams and an additional game each weekend, will bring in close to $1 billion. On current trends the NRL will struggle to get Channel Nine to agree to the current AFL rights figure of around $780 million, so the gap is likely to be even wider than it is today.

The confidence the AFL hierarchy have about their capacity to ensure the expansion plans work are, at least in financial terms, well placed!

Peter Fray

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