The Roosters win the 2019 NRL grand final (Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

Are the networks paying too much for the broadcast rights to the AFL and NRL? Decade-low audiences for both codes’ grand finals would suggest so.

The AFL national TV audience fell under 3 million for the first time in 13 years last week, and the audience for Sunday night’s NRL grand final was one of the lowest for a decade at 2.64 million. Both were sharply lower than 2018 and 2017 finals. You have to wonder if that’s value for money at a time when Nine, Seven and Foxtel are slashing costs to stay alive.

Ten, on the other hand, is rumoured to be readying a bid for the NRL contract from 2023. The AFL and NRL should hope that happens.

Last night’s audience for the NRL was down 393,000 (or just over 10%) from the 3.03 million for 2018. That, in turn, was down a massive 22% from the 3.4 million people who watched Melbourne Storm’s win in 2017. The metro audience on Sunday night slid to 1.86 million, down from 2.12 million in 2018 and 2.23 million in 2017. The most notable fall though came in regional areas of NSW and Queensland where just 775,000 watched. That was down from 911,000 in 2018 and 1.07 million in 2017 — a 30% fall over three years. This must be an enormous worry; rural NSW and Queensland are the biggest regional media markets in the country.

The AFL, on the other hand, attracted 2.93 million across the country. That was down 13% on last year’s 3.37 million; although last year’s grand final was certainly a better game to watch. The audience in Melbourne provides the best guide — that figure fell under 1 million people for the first time since the modern methods of measuring TV audiences started in 1991.

So, what’s behind these drops? TV viewing has changed due to streaming services and mobile viewing; viewers in pubs, clubs and other out-of-home locations are not measured either. That’s all true, but sport and grand finals are promoted by the networks, the codes and their advisers as being live, so viewing is hard to access on delay and replays after the final whistle or siren are low.

The AFL in particular is in denial about these falling audiences. The highest ever audience for a football grand final was the 2012 win by the Sydney Swans over Hawthorn (5.11 million metro and regional viewers). The 2.93 million for the 2019 game is a long way from that.

Peter Fray

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