NRL Rugby League continues to dominate pay TV ratings writes Roy Masters from the SMH, with NRL taking 64 spots in the top ranking 100 of the most watched PayTV programs in 2008, adding further support to the widespread view the code has seriously undersold its broadcasting rights to its part-owner, News Ltd.
The AFL has improved its ratings significantly since the last time the Herald gained the confidential data, but even with four exclusive pay TV games per week – part of Channel Seven’s deal with Fox Sports to defray the massive $780 million outlay for the rights – AFL’s popularity on subscription television is dwarfed by NRL.
Rugby union won third spot for the Super 14 final between the Crusaders and the Waratahs, but that competition produced only two other entries in the top 100 – the Waratahs’ semi-final against the Sharks (87th) and their match against the Highlanders (95th).
Super 14 matches are shown exclusively on pay TV and their unpopularity rings serious alarm bells for those negotiating the next TV contract, particularly whether the figures will justify expansion into Melbourne.
Cricket, the first sport shown nationally to Australians on free-to-air TV, has made no impression on subscription TV, with only one program in the top 100 – the domestic Twenty20 final between Western Australia and Victoria in 26th.
Two years ago, NRL games took 73 of the top 100 spots, while the AFL won only two.
The AFL has taken 23 positions this time, while rugby league has dropped nine, suggesting a trend that justifies Fox Sports’ outlay of $50m a year for four AFL games and $42m for the NRL’s five games.
However, this ignores the major readjustment to AFL programming to win improved TV ratings: four higher quality, exclusive games were scheduled per week, and the NRL was shunted from Fox Sports 1, the network’s premier channel, in order to accommodate AFL.
NRL was moved to Fox Sports 3, forcing some subscribers to pay extra for that coverage, and this year it was shifted again, to Fox Sports 2.
Furthermore, Fox Sports splits its signal for the AFL, telecasting different games to different states, something it refuses to do for the NRL in Melbourne, where the match of the round on Friday night’s is shown from 11.30pm.
Despite this dismissive treatment by Fox, which effectively half owns the NRL via News Ltd’s 50 per cent share in both organisations, rugby league had 42 programs in the top 50.
At No.2 and No.5 were games involving the Cowboys, a team running last in the NRL.
Monday Night Football was expected to make a big impression on NRL ratings, but the top 20 positions were spread evenly across Fox Sports scheduling, although Sunday afternoon games didn’t feature.
Most of the top-rating games were close, highlighted by the Cowboys-Panthers match on Saturday at 7.30pm in round 12. Penrith won 19-18, signalling that fans watch absorbing 80-minute contests.
The highly skilful Melbourne Storm are popular on pay TV, as are the strongly supported Dragons, while the Brisbane Broncos come in at No.48 (versus the Panthers), mainly because they are almost a permanent fixture on Channel Nine.
NRL chief executive David Gallop, who reacted to Russell Crowe’s criticism of the NRL broadcasting contract by saying the Oscar-winning actor should stick to his day job, defended the apparent disparity in revenue between NRL and AFL by pointing out that a further $12m should be added to rugby league’s share.
“Our five weekly Fox Sports’ NRL matches are taken by Sky in New Zealand and our funding from that should be added to our pay TV take,” he said.
However, even allowing for New Zealand’s Sky TV money, an AFL pay TV game generates $12.5m a year in rights income, while an NRL game generates $10.8m, a disparity magnified by the four to five times greater popularity of rugby league.
Free-to-air rights income is also disproportionate, with AFL earning twice as much money per game than rugby league.
While this has been attributed to an ego battle for the AFL rights between Kerry Stokes and Kerry Packer, rugby league’s better fit on the box has always been known to broadcasters.
“I remember Kerry Stokes telling me nearly 10 years ago that rugby league was the best sports product on TV,” said John Ribot, Storm founder and negotiator of Super League’s TV contract.
PAY TV’S TOP 100 SPORTS SHOWS