Off the Wall

The aggregate national television viewing numbers for major sports for 2009 were released yesterday and contained some very good news for the NRL and rugby league generally.

But the simple fact is they could be even better - and that needs to be the focus on the independent commission when it finally takes control of the game.

The AFL led the viewing numbers with 14.4 million, closely followed by rugby league with 14.1 million....then the A league with 1.4 million, and Super 14 with just under 900,000. These figures only include premiership fixtures and not finals and grand finals.

The fact the NRL premiership is able to get within about 3 per cent of the AFL is truly extraordinary.

If Channel Nine showed premiership matches live, or at a civilised hour, in Melbourne, and even Perth, where interest in rugby league remains strong then NRL viewing numbers would top those of the AFL - and possibly do so by hundreds of thousands.

When it comes to the national viewing audience numbers race, the NRL gives the AFL about a 30 metre start in a 100 metre contest!

The AFL has free to air television coverage in all mainland states - two or three games live or close to live each weekend. The NRL only has it in two states. NRL matches snapped up by Nine - and they have first and second pick each weekend - are shown in Melbourne and Perth after midnight.

Even though there is a debate about the advertising benefits of a five state coverage, the simple fact is that the NRL should be earning about what the AFL earns for its television rights. And when you throw in State of Origin, which the AFL does not have, then the total package for rugby league ought to be worth more than what the AFL gets.

Yet the current difference is around $200 million - $250 million over the five year favour of the AFL!

So when you read about the boss of Nine apparently being unhappy with David Gallop doing a promo for Matthew Johns and his new programme on the Seven network then offer him no sympathy!

Thanks to Kerry Packer forcing Seven and Ten to bid at the very top of the range - if not above it - for the AFL rights, the NRL was always going to get an inferior deal. Kerry may have been a rugby league man - but he did the game no favours in his final contract! Because Ten and Seven paid top dollar for it.

Today a number of clubs - Sharks, Warriors, and Panthers among them - are complaining they are getting little or no live free to air exposure in the first seven rounds.

How about the Melbourne Storm - the reigning premiers will probably still have no live free coverage down south after TWENTY SIX rounds!

But back to yesterday's numbers. The Broncos and the Eels draw more viewers than AFL icons such as Collingwood. And five of the top eight drawing teams in both codes are NRL teams. And the Storm are in eighth place - even with limited free to air coverage.

This is all good news for the NRL as it moves towards establishing an independent commission - albeit at snails pace.

But these figures do offer up one sobering reality.

An essential element in getting a new television rights deal that gives the NRL something like $200 million to $300 million more will be live coverage in Melbourne.

And in that regard I can report zero progress - tomorrow night's Friday Night Football will be shown on Nine in Melbourne at 12.05 AM Saturday!

But it was not all good news for rugby league yesterday.

The AFL, run by an independent commission and owned by the clubs, released its financial report for 2009. The report showed it was able to put aside something like $30 million after making distributions to its clubs etc. One assumes that $30 million will be added to the already substantial pool set aside to try and lift the AFL's profile - from the juniors up - in Western Sydney and South East Queensland!

We need an independent commission, and the game owning the game, now!