Off the Wall

The figures released by David Gallop yesterday on the "state of the game" give rise to confidence about where rugby league is positioned today - but most certainly are not a cause for complacency.

The one statistic that we ought to disregard is the "total attendance numbers". The 2.1 per cent lift over 2008 might seem encouraging but it simply cannot be believed.

The attendance figures released for matches at the Olympic Stadium, and even some at the SFS, are treated with derision by many commentators. The best that can be said is that the corporate boxes must be packed like sardine tins - because the attendance figures don't match the visual evidence of the numbers seated - or not seated - in the vast stadium.

Putting that figure aside, the reasons for optimism are substantial. Television ratings are up - and especially in South East Queensland which is one of the AFL's target areas. Merchandise sales are up, and that is an achievement in difficult (though we are no longer sure how difficult) economic conditions.

The game is in good shape when teams with large fan bases, and substantial junior teams, are travelling well. The Dragons, Bulldogs, Eels and Broncos all meet these criteria, and it is no coincidence that all four are in contention for the premiership. The success of the Titans, coupled with the Broncos resurgence, has helped attendances and viewing audiences in South East Queensland while the Dragons and Bulldogs are drawing much larger crowds to home games.

The other good news for rugby league is that the A League national soccer competition is struggling for crowds and coverage - and rugby union, and not just the Wallabies, is in the doldrums.

The dangers for the game lies in the true financial state of Sydney based clubs, and more particularly the Leagues Clubs that underpin the finances of the majority of them. There is a lag effect of the impact of poker machine taxes, smoking bans and the like.

The payments from the leagues clubs to the football clubs are already on the slide. That position is not going to improve greatly in 2010.

The other danger is that the cashed up AFL has not really started spreading cash like confetti in South East Queensland and Western Sydney. It is going to do so next year, and rugby league will need to be ready to match its largesse, which is likely to be focussed on funding junior teams - and meeting registration and other costs of junior players in particular.

Just how we are going to match the AFL's spending is the real issue. Most clubs are stretched financially, and we are locked into the current TV rights deal for a couple of years more. The AFL is currently negotiating its next agreement - so it will have two years head start with any extra funding it negotiates.

One area which must be addressed is the cost of the dual administrative structures - the ARL and its state entities and the NRL. The savings that can be achieved by a streamlined administrative structure should be ploughed back onto grass roots development.

For all the good news the NRL rightly trumpeted yesterday, the fact remains the state of the game in regional and rural areas in both New South Wales and Queensland must give rise for concern, if not alarm.

The number of regional and country teams continues to decline - and it is certainly not confined to small towns. The game remains in trouble in major regional centres as well.

All that said, the "report card" released by David Gallop yesterday is significantly more optimistic than it might have been six months ago.

There is good reason for confidence - but absolutely no cause for complacency in any form.