There are fewer people watching Friday night live NRL matches now than at any point since 2003. And while the AFL has managed to secure small increases in viewership, it’s unlikely the audience rise will justify a large increase in the amount networks pay to screen the sport.

The figures come from media analysis firm Fusion Strategy, which has compared the average live audiences across both the NRL and AFL. In a presentation sent to clients yesterday, it highlights the decline in NRL live viewing audiences over the past year, which itself follows a decline the year before.

In September last year, the NRL urged TV networks to think more creatively about scheduling after its average audiences went down 3.8%, as The Daily Telegraph reported at the time. But this year, Fusion Strategy says live audiences fell another 4% — down nearly 11% for live Friday night matches and 6% on Sundays, but up 14% for the delayed Friday telecasts.

Meanwhile, AFL audiences are up 6% overall for broadcaster Seven, despite that network’s decision to give up exclusive telecast rights in the 2012-2016 rights deal in exchange for the ability to air more matches — a decision described by Fusion Strategy’s Steve Allen as “more than vindicated”.

While figures such as these are good news for Channel Seven, they are a mixed bag for the league, which has long tried to maximise revenue from broadcast while still maintaining bums on seats at the grounds. The rise in viewing figures for the AFL comes after a year of falling crowds actually attending matches. The league has been criticised for experimenting with new time slots by scheduling games on Sunday and Monday nights.

Both the NRL and AFL are currently gearing up to negotiate new broadcast deals with the TV networks. For the broadcasters, both codes remain reliably popular programming. But Allen is sceptical that even the AFL’s improved audience figures will do much to lift the amount it can extract from a broadcaster.

“Most sporting rights in Australia are maxed out,” he told Crikey. “These sporting codes and their negotiation team are dreaming if they think they’ll get another substantial rise. Market conditions just won’t support it. You’ve seen them trying to talk it up. Even the NRL, with its falling audiences, is talking it up. You go, ‘Which planet do you come from?’ We’ve got next to no growth in advertising overall. There’s next to no growth in television. Where do they think revenue comes from?

“The money isn’t there — it’s simple as that.”

The cost of airing both the AFL and NRL has ballooned in recent negotiations. The AFL took home $1.258 billion from Seven in the latest round of negotiations — nearly a doubling of the $780 million the AFL secured in the previous deal. The broadcast rights deal makes up 70% of the AFL’s revenues. Meanwhile, the NRL managed to get $1.025 billion out of Nine and Fox Sports in 2012. The deal before that saw the league get just $500 million over six years. It will be interesting to see just how the new deals pan out.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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