Analysis – “Lions and Broncos and Bears! Oh my!” – Brisbane’s footy attendances

There’s nothing quite like a Wizard of Oz reference to title a post on a rugby league blog but here we are to discuss Australia’s third and best city, Brisbane.

I guess I, like most Australians outside the SCAM triangle, have a chip on my shoulder about the relative importance afforded to Sydney and Melbourne at the expense of the rest of us. I mean, there’s only 3.5 million people living in south-east Queensland but sure, tell me more about the battlers in Western Sydney who have to commute 400 hours a day to get their menial paycheck to service their grossly inflated mortgage.


I digress. The long history of the VFL is tightly bound to Melbourne and the nation’s premier rugby league competition to Sydney. In the late 1980s, guess who came crawling for expansion opportunities? Oh you want us to help you expand because now you want a national footprint? How interesting.

It should be noted that Brisbane had a strong local rugby league competition, the Brisbane Rugby League, prior to the Brisbane Broncos joining the NSWRL in 1988. That pretty much killed the BRL and it took about ten years to rebuild a top-level competition in Queensland.

The VFL added the Brisbane Bears in 1987, although I’m not sure I understand the thinking behind that other than there was already a team in Sydney and the Eagles needed an expansion partner that for some reason couldn’t be Adelaide. The 1997 merger with the Fitzroy Lions perhaps bears (pun not intended) out that the timing was off.

As demonstrated a few weeks ago, since adding Brisbane teams, both codes’ attendances have accelerated their growth:

afl rl average attendance trendlines

afl rl average attendance trendlines post-98

You would assume that the Broncos, expanding into rugby league heartland, would have had an easier time of it than the Bears (and later Lions) but the Cap doesn’t really bear that out.

broncos lions cap

OK, maybe it does but its closer than I thought. Ignoring Super League in 1997, it took the Lions winning three premierships on the trot and some of the Broncos’ worst seasons to date to get the Lions in front and even then, they couldn’t sustain it. Based on last season, the Broncos finished 5th and had a Cap of 5.8 while the Lions, after a woefully bad season in 17th, were sitting at 12.5. Admittedly, this is a lot closer than the Swans get to rugby league in Sydney and the Storm to AFL in Melbourne:

nswrl swans cap

storm melb cap

What’s surprising is that the NRL’s only regularly profitable club, with the biggest membership and highest regular attendance, only has a cap of around 6 (a 5.8 average for 1988 to 2011). The combined Sydney clubs are around 3 to 4, with an average of 3.6 over the same period. A lot more people in Sydney go to rugby league games than in Brisbane.

In fact, if we compare the Broncos to Sydney rugby league clubs and Melbourne AFL clubs, we see this:

broncos syd melb cap

By comparison to Sydney and Melbourne, Brisbane hates the Broncos. It took back-to-back premierships in 1992 and 1993 to get the folks out and even then, Brisbane was only able to match Sydney. We’ve never even been close to Melbourne.

I must say that this came as a big surprise to me. It’s why analysing numbers, instead of regurgitating statistics, is important.

The question is: why is Brisbane’s Cap so high compared to Sydney? I have a few ideas:

  • Having only twelve home games means there’s only twelve opportunities to go to a game. Sydney teams play around 100 games a year in Sydney. If you’re like me and go with a specific group of friends, making multiple timetables line up on a given night is challenging.
  • In recent years, the Broncos have played almost exclusively on Thursday and Friday nights which means only a certain demographic can attend games. I can imagine it wouldn’t be much fun to have finish work at 5, get the kids and get from Logan or Caboolture to Milton via public transport in time for 8PM kick-off and then having to pay out the rear for food and drink options. You probably would find it easier to watch on a 55″ screen at home.
  • Even though Suncorp is an excellent stadium, at a certain point of capacity, some of the seats would only be worth sitting in if its a blockbuster (e.g. Origin, Broncos v Cowboys). It would hardly seem worth parting with $40 to see the *insert wooden spoon contenders* get trounced at a distance of 100m+.
  • Brisbane games are ratings winners. In 2016, the top ten rating regular season games on free-to-air all featured the Broncos. Of the three games each weekend that Channel 9 shows, there’s definitely incentive to ensure the Broncos feature in at least one, meaning less incentive to turn up on the evening (and more for others if your team is less likely to be shown).
  • Personally, I don’t care for the police state mentality on display in stadiums. Its hard to have fun in that environment.
  • I really detest the shit beer options. Give me a full strength beer for… well, my sake. If you’re going to give the concession to Lion, at least make them put Rogers or Little Creatures on tap.

I think a combination of the above explains why Suncorp constantly averages 33,000 attendance, or 63% of capacity, year-in, year-out. For each additional person that goes, it makes the life of the next person considering attending a little less convenient. There’s obviously a point around the 33,000 mark where it becomes too inconvenient for the next person to bother, even if there are seats still available.

Lowering ticket prices might encourage more people to come but even if Suncorp sold out every home game, the Broncos’ Cap would only come down to 3.5. I think there’s a sufficient case to build that expansion might offer a chance to alleviate the capacity constraint. But what impact would that have on the Cap and attendance?