We need to look at a broader range of metrics to assess the health of a sport.
The headline is certainly catchy: “NRL trumps AFL in TV ratings war” (smh.com.au, 10 September).
But its simplicity masks the wider story of what’s happening in sport consumption in Australia, and around the world, as traditional TV coverage is augmented by so many other ways to engage with sport.
Overall, Australian TV audiences are down 4.7% from 2017 to 2018, as viewers drift away from traditional linear TV to other forms of video content delivery.
This won’t be news to anyone in the sports business, media or digital sector. “Cord-cutting” has entered the lexicon; live streaming of sport to mobiles or OTT is commonplace; the volume and quality of digital and social content being produced not only by media companies, but also by leagues, teams, athletes and even fans, is immense.
All of this means that a simple analysis of TV ratings is no longer very helpful in assessing the overall health of a sport.
I thought it might be interesting to look at some other indicators of NRL and AFL brand health this year.
Gemba consumer research has identified a slow but steady decline in the proportion of Australians that say they are passionate about AFL (-1.8% per year over the past five years). Meanwhile, smh.com.au reports that the AFL’s TV ratings are down 12.8% to the end of the 2018 regular season. Clearly this is not a great headline number, and given the importance of TV broadcast rights revenue to the economics of the game, in isolation it is a worrying statistic. But on most other metrics, the AFL has had a stellar year.
In 2018 the AFL exceeded 1 million paying Club members for the first time. It has recorded its highest total attendance figure across a home and away season in the 122 year history of the VFL/AFL, at 6,894,770 (up 2.5% on 2017, which was itself a record). And this year saw the highest number of attendees come through the turnstiles for the first week of finals, with 283,148 packing into the MCG, Optus Stadium in Perth and the Sydney Cricket Ground across four games – 20% up on the same set of matches last year.
Likewise, although TV ratings for the NRL are flat, attendance is up 3.8% in 2018. Total Club membership is up 3.7% at latest count. Importantly, after taking control over the majority of its digital assets this year, the NRL has seen substantial uplifts in digital subscriptions (almost double), and early in the season said it was averaging around 300,000 live mobile streams per game. It has also added more than 800,000 new digital accounts, with 60% being new to the NRL’s databases – direct connections with fans that in the past might have remained anonymous TV viewers.
Telstra, which holds the mobile streaming rights for both NRL and AFL, as well as Super Netball, reported in August that it had 1.2 million mobile devices streaming sport in a weekend, a new record for the company. Despite some of the technical problems experienced by fans with Optus’ recent FIFA World Cup coverage, the trend to watching live sport on mobile and internet devices is accelerating – Telstra claims a 58% increase in fans streaming games on its Apps, and over 40 million minutes of live sports content streamed on an average weekend.
So while the headline TV figure might provide part of the story of how fans’ engagement with sport is changing, record attendance and membership levels suggest a healthy level of commitment and engagement with both sports. Fans are consuming via digital channels more and watching TV less. As an industry, we need to continue to evolve our engagement strategies to reflect this changing landscape and keep fans involved, watching on TV or digital channels, and buying memberships and tickets.