Off the Wall

Yesterday the NRL received two very welcome set of numbers - a record attendance total for the first round of the premiership, and the highest ever viewing number for a Fox Sports NRL telecast.

When it comes to dollars, the second is the number that the NRL will be especially pleased with.

The Bulldogs v Tigers match on Monday night drew a peak audience of 464,000 and an average 365,000 viewers - breaking the previous 361,000 viewers when the Eels played the Roosters in round 21 last year.

Before I comment on more better news for the NRL and rugby league, let's put the 365,000 number in context. The A League Soccer Grand Final on Sunday afternoon, early evening drew 182,000 viewers - just HALF the Monday night NRL blockbuster.

What will really please the NRL as it prepares to engage in serious negotiations with free to air and pay television owners is that massive increase in Fox Sport's rugby league viewing audience across the weekend.

The average viewing audience across the five games Fox Sports showed live was 288,000 - up a staggering 38 per cent on the first round in 2010.

The 5.30 Saturday game between the Eels and the Warriors (shown at 4.30 in Brisbane) was watched by 262,000 viewers - up 46 per cent on last year. The other Saturday night games were up around 35 per cent and even the Raiders v Sharks game was up by 23 per cent.

These figures, together with the record attendances, emphasise not only the remarkable resilience and loyalty of fans, but that pay television numbers are going to break all records in 2011.

That is useful ammunition for the NRL, and the new independent commission, which will have to start serious negotiations on the post-2012 television rights agreements by mid-year.

I know some readers are dismissive of the role of Fox Sports, but the reality is that it shows FIVE matches live each weekend whereas Nine show just ONE.

Today's Financial Review reports that the AFL is having difficulty getting the $1 billion it wants for its post 2011 rights...and frankly, so it should!

Anyone who suggests that the AFL rights are worth $200 million more than the NRL's are cannot be serious. On pay television, rugby league was trouncing the AFL even before last weekend's massive lift.

But the NRL should be confident it will get a lot more than the $580 million current agreement...and a figure in the region of $800 million, or $40 million or so more a season, would give the game's finances a massive boost.

But, depending on where the AFL ends up, we might even do better.

The popularity of rugby league on Fox Sports as measured by the latest viewing numbers underestimates the actual viewing numbers - ask any publican or club manager and they will tell you rugby league on Fox lifts bar and club attendances.

The game has started the year is good shape - record first round attendances, record viewing numbers, and some really high quality games.

And, dare I add, an overall better performance from the referees! How long can it all last?