Tag Archives: broncos

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Brisbane Broncos

The Broncos didn’t finish last. They didn’t even finish second last. The Broncos wound up in fourteenth, 7-17 with a -249 points difference. Their points difference was only third worst in the league. The attack was also third worst, somehow behind the seventh placed Knights, and the defence an astonishing fourth worst. 2020 was so bad that all of these are actually positive things. As a bonus, the retiring has-been didn’t use the final game of the season as an opportunity for a gender reveal.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

The Broncos aren’t going to get the spoon again. Sorry, it’s just not how football works. They probably will not make the finals but there is literally only a single direction that the sport’s biggest franchise can take coming off a 3-17 season that included a 59-0 flogging, somehow breaking the previous year’s record flogging.

*tweet of Brodie Croft playing halfback pre-season*

Never mind. It looks like the Kevolution might take a little longer than initially anticipated.

While I didn’t have particularly high hopes for the Broncos, I thought they might improve somewhat on last year… So be it, although if Walters can’t get it sorted, the squad will have to be scattered to the four winds for their own good and Brisbane will have to start again with a bunch has-beens while the farm system replenishes… The alternative is teaching the younger players to play eighty minutes of football and winning some – it doesn’t even have to be a lot! – games.

Brodie Croft’s spectre has finally been vanquished from Red Hill, off to Salford per my prophetic meme.

The rest more or less came to pass. The Broncos were travelling poorly, with a roster that was worse than 2020’s and results that were better, and started offloading almost whoever they could get rid of. Matt Lodge, gone. Tevita Pangai, gone. Tom Dearden, gone. Reece Walsh, gone. That last one was probably not the smartest decision but we can blame the old front office, who are almost all gone as well, for that.

Then they started getting better and in a prime example of nature healing, debuting children again. And they won some more games – it wasn’t even that many! – and finished above the Cowboys, which is all we ever really wanted.

What happened

Let’s check in and see how our new coach is doing.

It’s an interesting strategy to crash the team even faster than your most loathed predecessor, especially if one wants to retain one’s job.

The rule of thumb is that once a coach loses 50 points, irrespective of their starting point, they end up losing their job sooner or later. It is extremely rare to be given the opportunity to turn it around after that kind of performance, although there are exceptions (see Catalans below). Walters’ sits at -31, having bottomed out at -38. While there’s currently no real pressure, a bad start to next season will almost certainly seal his fate. He will have to work extremely hard to break even and even that might not be enough to get a contract extension. A career season is what’s required.

Now let’s check in with how he went during his only other head coaching appointment.

I see. One could also use this chart to compare Walters’ performance to that of, say, Trent Robinson. I’m sure it will be fine.

There’s always next year

Adam Reynolds. Kurt Capewell. Jordan Pereira. If at least two of those names don’t fill the Broncos’ rivals’ hearts with dread, then I don’t know football.

The Broncos appear to have made the right moves to re-balance the roster but then that’s been ostensibly the case the last couple of off-seasons. The promise of high performance and, even laughably, a premiership window dissolved into the mirages they always were under the twin tyrannies of incompetent coaching and incompetent administration. I’ll believe that the Broncos have improved when I see them improve. Rationally, it should be the case but irrationally, I’ve sat through 58-0 and 59-0 and a combined 10-34 record over those seasons and, like dental surgery, I’d honestly prefer not to have to do that again.

Ben Ikin and Dave Donaghy should be good for it and Kevin Walters might not be. It’ll take time as every NRL rebuild project over the last decade has generally shown. Finals might be on the cards if everything goes well but I suspect just getting out of the basement will be achievement enough. Best case scenario is that football will go to pot again and a 10-14 record will be enough to qualify for the post-season with the Broncos on the right side of it this time. Worst case scenario is probably more of the same as this year which will be bearable but might only speed up my disengagement with the sport. There are so many other sports teams out there.

BNE2.1: The game done changed

“It is, at the end of the day, all rather stupid”

Last year was an illuminating time for those who closely follow the working man’s game. If, like me, you’ve only been a keen trainspotter for a few years, we might not remember older train wrecks, like Crusaders. Conveniently, the Toronto Wolfpack experience, which saw $30 million pissed down the toilet for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, brought some truths about the sport into very clear focus.

At a certain point, possibly while mulling things over for too long without live sport or being able to socialise, it clicked in my mind that it didn’t matter how well thought out an expansionist’s plan might be, it will never be implemented. There is no perfect post that will change anyone’s mind. This may be obvious to you but sometimes I can be very dense.

My silver lining on the new Brisbane NRL team is then dubiously reasoned, if not downright naive, in retrospect. While a Brisbane team could be leveraged commercially to take the game west (again), it will not be. Instead, it will be used to shore up Nine’s failing ratings in Queensland, as the three extant clubs flail about hopelessly. That’s just who the people running the game are, especially Peter V’landys and especially Phil Gould. Two shitty suburban culture warriors in the pocket of a free-to-air broadcaster are the Pacific game’s leading lights and that’s why we have two point field goals now.

It is, at the end of the day, all rather stupid. You won’t find a more Darwinian sporting observer than yours truly but even with my complete and utter lack of regard for tradition, introducing a team solely for the benefit of a legacy media organisation in 2023 is too far for me. For the sport as a whole to make money, by all means, do what you got to do. Even the Super League schism had some benefits for rugby league by forcing it to modernise somewhat. Who really gives a fuck if the only benefit is that Channel Nine survives a bit longer?

The thing of it is that there’s barely any risk for the NRL. You personally are not going to lose your team if the new Brisbane team fails, because you are not a fan of that team. No one is because it doesn’t exist. The NRL isn’t investing any money or taking any equity as far as I know, so there’s no financial risk. If the team fails, at worst the resulting quagmire might take out a storied Queensland Cup club (and, as recent events have clearly indicated, no one in Sydney cares about them) and the NRL suffers a bit of reputational blowback. If it works, ratings go up on Nine, the next TV deal is better and the NRL can profit. That money will be recycled on to the existing clubs in the form of higher club grants because Phil Gould believes the NRL is make-believe and the clubs are the only reality, which explains why North Sydney fans didn’t mind their club exiting first class football and we’ve never heard about it since.

The money will be wasted, as usual with Queensland clubs subsidising Sydney no-hopers, instead of being invested in making the sport better because that’s just what happens.

The candidates

Now that nasty cynicism is out of the way, here’s some more. After the Bombers and Western Corridor bids merged, there are now three candidates: Dolphins, Firehawks and Jets, representing Redcliffe, Eastern Suburbs Brisbane and Ipswich, respectively.

You shouldn’t rate the Queensland Cup’s popularity on how much I talk about it but rather based on the fact that it won’t be on TV this year. The idea that each club has community links is not unreasonable but those links represent very few people in the grand scheme of things and a lot of them are going to be conflicted about leaving the Broncos for a new venture. For mine, the three bids are now pretty much the same, so it’ll probably come down to who knows the ARLC best and/or who has the most money.

The recent merger has meant that the Western Corridor bid has dropped the Western Corridor aspect of their bid to become “Brisbane”, which makes much more commercial sense but is questionable if you purportedly represented the hitherto-culturally-non-existent Logan-Ipswich-Toowoomba conglomeration. The Indigenous angle they were taking is gone too. Presumably, the Jets team noticed the stance Peter V’Landys took prior to last year’s All Stars game regarding the anthem and read between the lines on his feelings about black people.

Similarly, the Bombers have dropped their name and replaced it with another imperialist death machine but at least one that has some rugby league history (stolen, like so many things, from the NFL), so kudos. As a result, the Jets have joined forces with an organisation that stands for nothing other than their own gain to give it a light patina of community respectability. In many ways, it is the perfect bid because there is so little to it, it can be moulded into whatever the powers that be want it to be. This will almost certainly be worse than what people could come up with organically (see above re: two point field goals), starting with an incredibly omnious 9/11 themed logo (which obviously may not be real).

Whichever bid is successful, people and specifically, people on Twitter who aren’t fans and will never be fans of the new club, will hate everything about it – logo, name, colours. I note the hypocrisy but I at least know that it won’t matter. Twitter’s usefulness as a barometer on rugby league matters is only as a contraindicator and we wait with bated breath for the exit polls from Facebook and the Daily Telegraph to see which way Peter V’Landys is going to go.

In any case, Brisbane is so starved of NRL, it’ll probably work, especially after a sold out all-Queensland double header at Suncorp results in the destruction of a large part of the city.

The TV deal

The most frequent question asked in relation to BNE2 is “how does adding a 17th team result in higher ratings?” It’s a good one because there obviously isn’t going to be a ninth match each weekend and instead one team will sit on the sidelines with a bye. Here’s the theory that I think Nine, V’Landys and co are working with:

  1. Even if BNE2 is half as successful as the Broncos, it’ll still rate better than most of the league. That means, most weeks will remove ratings anchors like the Knights, Sea Eagles, Bulldogs and Raiders and replace them with an above average team, which will improve the overall ratings across the season, even without adding a game.
  2. The current FTA arrangement has a hard cap on the number of times a team can appear on free-to-air (I believe it is currently 16 for the Broncos and 12 for everyone else) and another cap on how many return fixtures are allowed per club (Nine might show both legs of Broncos-Cowboys, Broncos-Eels and Broncos-Rabbitohs but then wouldn’t be able to show both legs of, e.g., Broncos-Titans). By adding a second Brisbane team, this allows Nine to have more Broncos-equivalent games, with a Brisbane team on FTA every weekend. This also explains the inexplicable increase in Dragons FTA appearances for 2021 because they’d run out of good teams to show.
  3. Nine sells all of its content to regional networks at what amounts to a fixed rate and so doesn’t care how well football rates in the sticks. Its revenue is driven by the five city metro ratings. From Nine’s point of view, the Gold Coast Titans are a regional football team and they probably don’t see them as moving ratings in the Brisbane market. That the Titans are just “down the road” doesn’t factor in.
  4. A second Brisbane team then is likely to uplift Brisbane’s ratings more, and more often, when compared to how a Perth team would lift ratings in Perth.
  5. The recent broadcast renegotiations allowed for the deal to be improved if a new team is added.

I think its extremely likely that ratings will go up in the short term (or, more accurately, go down less quickly) after BNE2 comes in, even just for novelty purposes. Even if it doesn’t last or the broadast deal doesn’t go up by enough to cover the club grant, I’m sure the ARLC will just boot the Warriors or Storm to compensate.

The Warrior Dolphins

Just before kick-off of the Bulldogs-Dragons spoon bowl on Monday, the Warriors dropped a big press release. Contained within is an important story with a lot of implications for rugby league, so let’s go through them.

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For the Broncos

It wasn’t that long ago that the Broncos had six feeder clubs in the Queensland Cup. It was probably too many, even if we ignore the fact that the Capras’ remoteness makes them relatively useless. I guess Brisbane felt a responsibility to give all of the clubs something, even if it wasn’t necessarily in the optimal interest of everyone.

Over the first off-season, the Jets aligned themselves with the Newcastle Knights. Seemingly this is because the Broncos and Jets organisations had differing philosophies and the new partnership makes “very good sense as Newcastle is really Ipswich by the sea”.

Even though NRL-contracted Knights players will still drop down into the Knights’ Canterbury Cup squad rather than the Jets’ Intrust Super Cup team, Ipswich now forms part of the Newcastle pathway. Presumably this means the Knights will get some sort of droit du seigneur on Ipswich kids, provided that they aren’t snapped up by other clubs beforehand (if you think geographical boundaries mean anything, you can go count the talented alumni of Gold Coast high schools at the Brisbane Broncos).

Then, not long after the conclusion of the second off-season, the Dolphins suddenly announced that they too were leaving the stable. They first joined in 2006, leaving the Roosters to fend for themselves. The Toowoomba Clydesdales, the Broncos’ other feeder at the time, folded not long after, were replaced by Aspley for one season in the Queensland Cup and then the focus shifted to the Dolphins form 2008 onwards.

The Dolphins had been given imperial preference by the Broncos. The best of the rest played at Redcliffe and the club formed something of a finishing school for future Broncos. The Dolphins played Matt Lodge for a season in 2018 as the Broncos waited out the PR penalty for that signing and got Lodge back into shape. In short, the clubs were tight and now they are not.

In the space of six months, Brisbane has gone from six to four feeders. It’s something of a high performance sporting break-up. No one knows (yet, exactly) why. Given the current state of the team’s first grade side and both front and back offices, eyebrows are necessarily raised.

For the Warriors

A New Zealand Warriors-branded team replaced the Auckland Vulcans in the New South Wales state cup in 2014. Since then, the reserve Warriors have bobbed around average but hardly blown the doors off the competition. Their best season was 2017, finishing in second place with a 13-5-4 record, before exiting in the prelims.

The re-purchase of the Warriors by a combination of the Auckland Rugby League via the Carlaw Heritage Trust and Autex Industries, a long time supporter of New Zealand rugby league, in April 2018 led to a hint that the Warriors reserves would run through the Auckland rugby league premiership, with the aim of raising that competition’s standard. That never happened and Autex ended up buying out the rest of the Warriors after a break down of “over a difference in philosophies and personality clashes”.

So it seems that the idea is on the backburner and the Warriors have seized a great opportunity. 

The main benefit will be leveraging the Dolphins’ extensive experience in developing players. This doesn’t seem to have been to be the Warriors’ major issue. Having access to the best talent that New Zealand rugby union overlooked or discarded means having access to so many kids with potential that it’s hard to fail to develop at least a few stars. Nonetheless, the finishing school might be the one or two percent polish on development players that’s separating the Warriors from that elusive premiership.

Shuttling reserve grade players from Auckland to Brisbane is probably no more difficult than shuttling them between Auckland and Sydney. The state cup travel load in Queensland is greater than in New South Wales but it won’t be anything that Redcliffe, or the Warriors for that matter, won’t already be used to. It might be worth it if the deal comes with some Knights-style droit du seigneur on unscouted talent in the Moreton Bay region.

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For the Dolphins

With the Dolphins bidding to become the NRL’s second Brisbane franchise and if they are successful, the relationship with the Broncos would inevitably have to be severed. This might be the first, albeit somewhat premature, step.

The basic math is that if NRL squads have thirty signatories and only seventeen can play on game day and minus a few injuries, there’s roughly six to ten pros who need something to do each weekend. Typically, they play in reserve grade competitions, as accommodated by the NRL’s farm teams. In New South Wales, those surplus to first grade’s requirements are sent to play at one club but in Queensland, players are assigned to a varying number of clubs. The fringe first graders are generally better quality than the other state cup-level footballers, so getting as many into your lineup is critical to success in the second tier. 

When the Broncos’ cup ran over, the Dolphins were the primary beneficiary. The benefit for Redcliffe now is that instead of sharing nine or ten fringe first graders with Souths Logan, Norths and Wynnum-Manly, they can get a NRL club’s set of players to themselves. In terms of the 2019 Warriors, think Chanel Harris-Tavita, Tom Ale and a handful of forwards that have played at NRL level, like Bunty Afoa, Ligi Sao and Sam Lisone, and instead of getting two or three of them, the Dolphins will now have all five.

For the Queensland Cup

In the most recent editions of the Queensland Cup, there’s generally been four clubs in the mix: Redcliffe (Broncos), Burleigh (Titans), Townsville (Cowboys) and whichever of Easts and Sunshine Coast the Storm happen to favour that season. There’s the occasional incursion from your Hunters and Seagulls types but generally that’s been four of the top six.

Introducing a fifth NRL club will presumably add a fifth power. Considering Redcliffe is already one of those powers, it will be from the Broncos reassigning their talent elsewhere. They have only three metro clubs to choose from: Wynnum-Manly, Souths Logan and Norths. We could baselessly speculate that the Magpies, already home to Cory Paix, Tom Dearden and Tesi Niu in 2020, will become New Redcliffe but perhaps the Broncos would prefer to build on the stronger base at Kougari, as Wynnum-Manly finished runners-up in three grades in 2019.

Even if the Broncos split the difference, one of the clubs will likely luck out and rise up, so the establishment of a new feeder relationship resets the balance in a way not seen since NSWRL clubs were allowed to feed into the competition.

Still unknown is the fate of the under 20s and under 18s Warriors’ and Dolphins’ sides. The Warriors did not participate in Jersey Flegg in 2020 as is, after going 9-9-2 in 2019, but the SG Ball side sat in third when the competition was suspended. While the Storm uses Queensland feeders, their junior sides play in the NSW competitions as of last year. Perhaps we will see junior Dolphins continue in the Queensland competitions and junior Warriors playing in Auckland. Further unknown is if Redcliffe get the nod to go up to the NRL, whether the Warriors will return to NSW or partner with a different Queensland club.

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For the NSW Cup

Now we ask ourselves, what actually is the point of the New South Wales Cup?

The Canterbury Cup is stuck between two ideas: that the second tier competition should be a reserve grade for the Sydney NRL clubs and that there should be a high level competition across the state of New South Wales. The recent merger of the Country Rugby League into the NSWRL makes the question more pertinent.

Where is the representation of regional NSW in the state competition? Other than Newcastle, the cup is limited to a triangle between Woollongong, Penrith and Gosford. Roughly three million people, enough to be the fourth largest state in the country in its own right, live in the ACT and New South Wales outside of Sydney.

With the Canterbury Cup now down to eleven contestants, it’s time for the NSWRL to consider what its purpose is. Dare I suggest expansion to engage a wider base? There are six regions in the CRL that could provide the basis of new teams. Combine that with the Sydney has-beens (North Sydney, Newtown, Western Suburbs) and the never-weres (Mounties, Wenty, Blacktown) and a few outside teams, like the Kaiviti Silktails or new teams established in the southern states, and you’d have yourself a pretty decent league with a totally different flavour to the NRL.

We could also dispense with the idea that taking Sydney club games to regional areas is good because they would have teams to call their own, forcing the Sydney clubs to pull their fingers out and find some fans.

Of course such an approach would undermine the direct influence that the Sydney NRL clubs have, so it will never fly. They may point to earlier, half-hearted efforts made in areas outside of Sydney and their presumed failure as a reason to consolidate the competition into a vanilla reserve grade offering. “We tried that, it didn’t work.”

Insofar as there’s any measure of the respective popularity of the second tier comps, the Queensland grand final seems to attract greater attendances than its New South Wales counterpart. My theory is that while the quality is generally stronger in New South Wales (fewer clubs with more fringe first graders) it has less appeal because its main selling point is to have the same clubs as the NRL but with worse rosters. Its difficult to see such a competition achieving any degree of popularity, outside of the anoraks who have read this far and people watching the lead-in to the Sunday arvo game.

The thing about different clubs is that they represent different areas, have different colours and different histories. These clubs have different meanings and that’s what gets people to care. Fans having multiple clubs to support across different competitions would be a net benefit for rugby league, keeping people more engaged and for longer.

Maybe think about it, New South Wales.

Everything you ever wanted to know about NRL TV ratings but were afraid to ask

The overwhelming majority of fans get their NRL fix through the TV. An average round will attract 124,000 in the stands but 3.6 million, thirty times as many, will tune in via subscription (PTV) or free-to-air (FTA) television.

TV ratings are an under-explored and critically important part of the modern game. Ratings should be a, if not the, key factor in judging how clubs are performing and what they bring to the commercial viability of the game. Due to the difficulty and expense of getting ratings data, all we really know is that the Broncos are the game’s biggest drawcard. Everything else is a mystery.

That’s no longer the case. A big thank you goes out to @footyindustryAU of the website Sports Industry, who kindly furnished me with all of the ratings data he has collected by hand over the last three years. He’s worth a follow if you want to know what the other Australian codes are up to without having to actually follow anyone associated with the other codes.

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The following is based only on regular season games from 2017 to 2019 and we are missing data for the last two rounds of 2017. We have no streaming numbers, so its timely to do this analysis now before that becomes a really significant, and completely opaque, component of how fans engage with the sport.

Let’s start with the obvious:

Total viewers

The basic breakdown of the broadcast deal is that everyone gets equal air time on PTV/Foxtel, with all games broadcast live, but there’s a noticeably inequitable approach taken for the games shown on FTA/Nine. Nine’s goal, having only three of the eight games a week, is to get the biggest teams on screen as frequently as the integrity of the competition will allow.

The highest rated FTA game in the dataset was the round 3 Friday night blockbuster between the Storm and Broncos in 2017, at 904,000 viewers. The lowest was last season’s round 25 Saturday spoon bowl between the Titans and Dragons, at a meagre 273,000. We see a similar range in PTV games, with the best being Thurston’s farewell game against the Titans in 2018, attracting 400,000 viewers on a Saturday evening. A round 19 fixture between the Knights and Titans in the same year plumbed PTV’s lows at only 132,000.

The most watched regular season game in the last three years was the 2017 Queensland Derby in round 2, with 1.2 million viewers (879k on FTA and 303k on PTV) tuning in. The aforementioned 2019 spoon bowl managed just 410,000 viewers in total (273k on FTA and 137k on PTV) in what is possibly one of the least watched simulcast games in the modern era of rugby league. That should provide some context for how much demand there is for a wooden spoon playoff.

Average ratings by club

That looks pretty straightforward. The Broncos are clearly the most watched team in the NRL. It might surprise people see who follows them: Melbourne, North Queensland and South Sydney. Most of the Sydney clubs sit mid-pack with the Raiders, Sea Eagles, Knights and Titans rounding out the bottom of the table.

There’s a 20% variation between the top club on PTV, Brisbane’s Broncos against the bottom-ranked Titans, but a 25% gap on FTA between the Broncos and the Knights.

That the Storm are a top rating team in the centre of the AFL universe is an eye-opener to the way the game has changed in the last twenty years and it’s worth a closer look.

Regional ratings breakdown (1)

A Storm game doesn’t have a huge impact on ratings in Sydney but does add 25,000 FTA viewers and 17,000 PTV viewers from Victoria and another 10,000 viewers in Brisbane (4k FTA, 6.5k PTV). It’s likely that this impact is understated, given how rarely the NRL rates at all in Melbourne. While these numbers sound small in the grand scheme, assuming that those figures generally hold across all games, the Storm would go from having the second highest average on PTV to twelfth, and from second to fourth on FTA without their local audience.

Relative impact of the Storm on regional ratings (1)

This really puts paid to the idea that teams from Sydney and Brisbane can have any meaningful appeal in the southern states without expansion. To truly engage Perth, Adelaide and other places in any form will require teams in those cities. It is simply not enough for Sydney clubs to move the occasional lack lustre game and hope that simple repetition engages with a wider non-traditional market. If those places are to care even a little bit, they need their own teams.

In Brisbane, a small rise in FTA and a 15% jump in PTV ratings strongly suggests that the Storm are serving as a surrogate fourth Queensland team thanks to the well-documented exploits of the future Immortals that played in purple and in maroon.

Market size

I think this is really interesting because it tells me what Nine think about the relative broadcast appeal of each team. Brisbane is the only true “big market” team, if I’m to borrow the American parlance, which is why they get the most games. Most of the Sydney teams plus North Queensland and Melbourne are mid-sized market teams and even then, there’s a small split between Souths, Parra, Easts, Canterbury and Wests on one side and Penrith, St George Illawarra, Cronulla, Melbourne and North Queensland on the other, for FTA appearances.

The Gold Coast, Canberra, Manly and Newcastle are small market teams, although the Titans appear to out-rate a number of mid-market teams, despite being terrible. There’s no shame in being a small market, unless you’re Manly. Not all markets are created equal and some have value beyond raw commercial appeal.

I’ve declined to include the Warriors because they bring most of their value through the New Zealand TV deal and have had three (3) free-to-air games on Australian TV in three (3) years.

You might want to argue that Brisbane has the highest ratings because it gets the best timeslots or that the Roosters are good, so their ratings don’t reflect the numbers they would get during leaner times. I think you’re right, so I’m going to try to separate out the following variables:

  • Timeslot
  • Round
  • Quality of teams
  • Disparity of teams’ quality

To get an apples-for-apples comparison of which NRL team rates the best on TV. Spoiler alert: it’s still the Broncos.


Average ratings by timeslot

The timeslots are self-explanatory with the “miscellaneous” category sweeping up the odd public holiday games, like the Monday’s Labour Day Bulldogs games or Anzac Day clashes.

The popularity of the timeslots generally aligns with what you’d expect. Saturday is really important to Foxtel, while getting the big teams on Thursday and Friday nights is critical for Nine.

The late Sunday slot, with 6.30pm kickoffs in the early part of the year, is a ratings winner for pay TV. I’m surprised that Foxtel hasn’t proposed a permanent shift from the 2pm kickoff to 6.30pm, even if it would look like the league is being played behind closed doors.

Timeslots by club

Each club’s arrangement of timeslots is almost like a fingerprint. The Cowboys dominate the late Saturday slot, the Warriors the early Friday game and Sydney clubs the Sunday afternoon game, just as much as the Broncos have the Thursday and Friday games. You can tell a team is being buried by broadcasters by how many early games they have.

The data I have does not go back far enough but I would have been curious to see how Thursday night ratings stack up against Monday night football. Reportedly, people prefer Thursdays to Mondays but I don’t have evidence for that.


Average ratings by round

Generally speaking, PTV loses about 900 viewers per game for each round the season progresses and FTA loses closer to 5,000. That’s about 0.3% and 0.8% of the average audience respectively. In other words, about 20% of the audience that was watching Nine at round 1 has tuned out by round 25 (this only about 8% on Foxtel).

This is presumably a by-product for all closed leagues around the world. Fan engagement dwindles as fewer teams have anything meaningful to play for. If you want to know why there’s a push for wild card games in the NRL or expanded play-offs in other sports, there’s your answer. 

Do open leagues, with promotion and relegation, avoid this tail-off towards the end of the season? Does gaining these viewers back offset the risk that you might lose a commercially important team to relegation? Conversely, do first-past-the-post leagues lose viewers as teams fall out of the race for the title but are safe from relegation and so have nothing to play for?

We see bumps after the first third of the season as public holiday games during Easter, Anzac Day and Labour Day give the ratings a nudge upwards.

Quality of teams

Total wins

Performance scatter (1)

If you’ve made it this far without knowing what Elo ratings are and how they reflect performance, you can either read up on it or look at the above two graphs. There’s a 0.8 coefficient of correlation between the average class Elo rating over 2017 to 2019 and the number of wins that team has. The 20% not explained by the ratings is attributed to the different starting points teams had at the end of the 2016 season, among other noisy and inconsequential factors.

It’s important that you understand this because I’m going to use Elo ratings as a proxy for team quality. There are two types of Elo ratings on this site: form (short term performance) and class (long term performance).

The reason I make this distinction is because if the Roosters, for example, go on a six game losing streak, their form rating would be destroyed but their class rating would reflect a smaller loss. This is by design as we don’t yet know if this is a collapse of the Bondi empire or a blip on the radar caused by Origin selections. If losses continued, the form rating would bottom out to a point where it reflects our expectations that the Roosters will lose and the class rating would catch up eventually, reflecting the overall sentiment about the prospects of the club.

FTA Ratings vs. Elo Ratings

PTV Ratings vs. Elo Ratings

My expectation is that games featuring better teams will rate better. Neutral fans might be more inclined to watch a top of the table battle than a dust-up between two sets of incompetents. I’ve used the average of the competing team’s class and form Elo ratings to identify which games have “good” teams and which ones have “bad” teams.

While the relationship certainly exists, it is a relatively weak one unless you put the games in buckets. I used buckets of 20 rating points and the coefficient of correlation is 0.90 on PTV and 0.58 on FTA. This adds some evidence to the argument that Foxtel’s audience is relatively more interested in the potential quality of the match than Nine’s.

Disparity in team’s quality

FTA Ratings vs. Gap in Elo ratings

PTV Ratings vs. Gap in Elo ratings (1)

The problem with just using the average of Elo ratings is that a game between two teams rated at 1500 has the same rating as a game between a team rated 1350 and another at 1650. These two scenarios have completely different prospects for entertainment value. To account for that, I plotted the gap between the two teams to reflect the expectation that the game will be close or a hiding.

This is a rare example of a non-linear relationship. On the horizontal axis, we have the difference between the two teams in Elo rating terms to serve as a proxy for the likelihood of the game being a blowout as the greater the gap, the more lopsided the encounter is expected to be. What we see is that viewers are not likely to modify their behaviour until the win probability for the favourites starts to exceed 70% or so (lower than approximately $1.40 in gambling terms), after which people fail to tune in. The sample size decreases as the curve moves to the right, so is subject to more noise but the coefficient of correlation is still 0.65.

A strange quirk for this analysis is that I used the average of class and form ratings to analyse the pay TV numbers but only form ratings for free-to-air. I did this because it works better (higher coefficient of correlation) but also further hints that FTA and PTV viewers do not use the same decision making framework.

Stripping out the variables

The purpose of these graphs is to determine a relationship between the variables we want to remove and the ratings data, so that we can go back and account for those variables in explaining the ratings. The relationships do not explain 100% of the observed phenomena but if we do a good enough job of accounting for the variables, most of what’s left is the raw pulling power of the club in question.

For each variable, the trendlines established above are converted to a percentage of the average FTA or PTV rating. These four percentages are averaged and deducted from the percentage over or under average for the game’s rating. The residual percentage is averaged for each club over the three regular seasons as an indicator of the club’s attractiveness to viewers.

I’ve called this “value-add” because that’s what it is: it’s what each club adds to the ratings compared to the league average, all others things being equal.

FTA value add

PTV value add

Based on the best I could find, Foxtel contributes about 65% to the current Australian broadcast deal, while Nine picks up 35%. Weighting the FTA and PTV value-adds accordingly, give us the below:

Broadcast deal value add

As always, I have caveats.

Because this is real life involving people and not the physics of subatomic particles, there’s going to be variation, noise and errors that make it problematic to rely on the results of this analysis as an indisputable truth. This is why I’ve chosen not to weight the different variables being stripped out as more important than the other, as doing so would likely introduce more error, not reduce it.

In reality, the variables all feed on each other and there’s no clear order of cause and effect. The Broncos are a big market team that has generally been successful, in part because of the advantages of being a big market team, which leads to bigger ratings and more frequent appearances on TV, reinforcing their status as a big market team. While we would normally overcome this with the battering ram of sheer sample size, we do not have that luxury and so work with what we have.

I briefly toyed with the idea of trying to account for the opposition on a match-by-match basis but the levels of recursion made me go cross-eyed. If that invalidates my approach for you, so be it. I think the reality is that most of these variables more or less cancel out over time.

TV ratings are inherently problematic. They use a small sample size of people to determine what the rest of the nation is doing. Oztam is not a particularly transparent organisation and the fees to get access to their data are on the order of $20,000. Further, there’s no accounting for streaming numbers. That said, we don’t have much else to work with at this scale.

The concept of value-add represents the idea that a game featuring the Broncos would probably rate 10% higher if they replaced an average team in the league, all other factors being equal. What that means in dollars is not clear. Or, in other terms, how many people will watch a NRL game, purely because it is a NRL game?

A back-of-the-envelope estimate suggests that each club brings about $12 to $21 million in base value to the broadcast deal (under the 2019 terms of the agreement). The Broncos’ value-add is somewhere between $6 and $26 million over and above that base value. If you’ve noticed that looks like a big range, that’s why I’m not confident publishing the estimates for other clubs and that’s without trying to estimate how much of the broadcast deal is Origin and finals, rather than the regular season.

I think the free-to-air ratings do a better job of measuring widespread appeal, while the pay TV ratings better show what the hardcore fans want to watch. The audience on Foxtel is much stickier, which suggests to me that there is a larger component of the audience that will watch anything rugby league, preferably good quality rugby league, whereas Nine’s audience is driven by the teams involved and how they happen to be travelling at that point in the season.

Value-add vs Average class rating (1)

I don’t think I’ve fully stripped out the performance of the teams and their impact on ratings. There’s a 0.25 coefficient of correlation between the average class rating over this time against the broadcast value-add.

This brings us to the end of the analysis and to the commencement of speculation, specifically in terms of ceilings and floors. The trendline would suggest teams above it return a greater value-add given the performance of the club than the league average club would with the same performance. The reverse applies to teams below the line.

If the Tigers get better, we would expect them to slide to the right and up, as the improvements in team quality lead to an improved value-add, and I would expect them to keep roughly the same buffer to the trendline.

For the opposite case, the Roosters won two of the three premierships under consideration, so their value-add (seventh best in the league) is probably as high as its going to be. A return to the pre-Politis days would beg the question how many people would be compelled to watch Eastern Suburbs scrap it out for mid-to-lower table honours. If the commercial premise of the club is based on it being good in perpetuity, then that is not a sustainable strategy. I have the same question, but with a much more immediate emphasis, for the Sharks.

The Knights had a torrid time over the back end of the 2010s but still appear to bring more to the table than we might expect from other clubs in the same position. As Newcastle continues to pull itself out of the abyss, I wonder if they might start bringing a positive value-add over average, which would be remarkable for a city with a metro population of only half a million. You would expect them to drag on the league, being a small market whose primary purpose is to represent, rather than deliver a commercial return.

As for the Titans, the NRL’s youngest club and with no real success to speak of to date, the Gold Coast have not had much on which to build a fanbase. Modern expansion teams (post-1980) have at least two things in common: grand final wins and future Immortals. The exceptions are the Warriors, whose New Zealand TV deal secures their place in the NRL forever, and the Titans, who have never had prolonged star power or on-field success. All the other expansion clubs are gone.

The Titans might not have much appeal to the purist Foxtel audience (or worse, NRL Twitter), the Gold Coast’s FTA value-add is nonetheless the sixth best in the league. While there’s a small sample size and most of those games have traditionally been against higher rating teams, that’s also somewhat offset by the lowest rated game in the dataset. That suggests plenty of commercial power waiting to be unlocked by the next Lewis, Meninga, Johns, Smith or Thurston if they make it to Robina and bring the Provan-Summons to the Gold Coast. As I’m fond of reminding people, if the NRL can’t get a club off the ground in Australia’s sixth largest city in rugby league heartland, then there isn’t much hope.

The million-dollar question, especially in the context of the supposedly imminent collapse of every NRL club and one Immortal suggesting that four teams should be pushed over a cliff, is how each of the Sydney clubs stack up. Based on this analysis, you’d keep the Rabbitohs, the Eels and the Tigers. For the rest, who knows? Can the Bulldogs bounce back from their recent lows to re-engage with their presumably larger and recently absent fanbase? Manly have been bang-on average over the last three years and still put up regional club numbers. Put them in Newcastle’s position circa 2016 and it’s unlikely that the NRL would see much point in trying to prop them up.

The reality is that each club’s destiny is in their own hands. Souths have gone from being so insignificant that the league was prepared to do without them and now are making a case to be Sydney’s most popular team. That takes time and money and marketing but it’s not a skillset unique to the Rabbitohs and their owners and managers. Anyone can do it if they have the will and resources and if your club doesn’t have the will or the resources to expand the fanbase, then what is the point?

If the NRL did cut teams, we may well lose their existing fanbases to the void, but a new Perth or Adelaide or New Zealand or even a second Brisbane team might bring more people in to the fold to replace them and then some, resulting in a net benefit to the league. A second New Zealand team should add enough to the kiwi TV deal to pay for its own club grant and if nothing else, it would eliminate the need for 6pm kickoffs on Fridays in Australia. Perth and Adelaide might be able to justify the addition of a third Friday night game or bring online the late Sunday timeslot, as well as engaging their local markets better than outside teams could ever hope to. Even the addition of a few tens of thousands of viewers would be valuable. If a new Brisbane team brought in half as much value-add as the Broncos, they’d still be ahead of the rest of the NRL.

An addendum about regional FTA figures

A couple of people asked about regional viewing figures compared to metro. All of the above FTA analysis includes the regional numbers. I won’t be breaking further down by region because that information is not consistently available across the dataset and so the numbers it throws up might not be as reliable.

The audience for the average FTA is 40% regional (236k) versus 60% metro (361k). Unlike AFL, where I believe this proportion is skewed more in favour of metro areas, it’s important to get the regional numbers when assessing the performance of NRL ratings.

The popular teams are still popular, whether the market be regional or metro. The gap between the top and bottom clubs (Brisbane and Newcastle, respectively) is 28% and 20% for metro and regional respectively. The regional clubs – Canberra, Gold Coast, North Queensland and Newcastle – have significantly more value-add, once all the variables are stripped out, in regional ratings than metro. The Cowboys are 4th by average viewers in metro markets and 2nd in regionals, the Titans move from 9th to 8th, the Raiders from 13th to 9th and the Knights are at the bottom of both, but halve their metro value-add of -10% to -5% in regionals.

Worth remembering that given the lesser variation in regional numbers than metro, the tendency for all clubs will be to revert to mean value-add (0%) from metro to regional.

Metro vs Regional average viewers (1)

FTA value-add breakdown


Who will win the 2019 NRL Premiership?

At this time of year, is there anything else you want to know more than the answer to this question?

For our crystal ball, we turn to Monte Carlo simulations. These simulations work on the principle that if we know the inputs to a complex system and how they relate to each other, then we can test the outcomes of that system using random numbers to simulate different situations.

At its most basic, just imagine if you simulated the outcome of football matches by rolling dice. Numbers one and two might represent a win for the Gold Coast and numbers three through six might be a win for Wests. If you repeat that a couple of thousand times, not only will you be extremely bored but the Gold Coast will “win” about 33% of the time and Wests 66%.

Now take the same approach for the nine finals games, with the winner advancing per the NRL’s system, but instead of using dice, you generate a random number between zero and one and calculate the win probability using Archimedes (form) Elo ratings. Then repeat it 5,000 times over. The number of times that the Storm or Roosters or Broncos or Eels “win” the premiership across your simulations should give you some insight into the probability of that happening in real life. I call this the Finals Stocky and I present its findings.

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The young forwards are not to blame for the Broncos’ demise

To not put too fine a point on it, the Broncos have been shockingly bad in 2019. Riding the hype train in this year, they were touted as premiership contenders (disclosure: including by me).

The Broncos have won just two games. One was against a Cowboys side that is facing similar struggles and another against a Sharks team bereft of its star power. The other six games have been losses, ranging from a late field goal from Corey Norman sealing the win for the Dragons, to thirty-two point demolitions at the hands of Easts and then again from Souths.

The finger pointing has begun. The Broncos’ extremely youthful pack has come in for criticism, both for a lack of go-forward and a lack of consistency.

The statistics tell a different story.

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A deep dive for each team’s 2019 NRL season

With the first Maori versus Indigenous All-stars game and another edition of the World Club Challenge in the history books, our attention turns to the NRL season ahead.

As with last year, I’m going to do a SWOP – Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Prospect – analysis for each team. My general philosophy for judging a team’s prospects is that where a team finishes on the ladder the previous year is a more or less accurate reflection of their level, give or take a win or two. If no changes are made, we should see a similar performance if the season was repeated. There are exceptions, e.g. the Raiders pathological inability to close out a game should be relatively easy to fix and the Knights’ managed maybe two convincing wins in 2018 but still finished eleventh, but broadly, if a team finishes with seven wins and they hope to improve to thirteen and make the finals, then we should look at what significant changes have been made in order to make that leap up the table.

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One thing new NRL fans need to know about each team

Last year’s Rugby League World Cup introduced the sport to a lot of new potential fans around the world. If anyone in rugby league administration could see past their nose, they’d be trying to win over these new converts to the game’s top competition: the National Rugby League.

The 2018 season starts this week and if you’re new to the sport, trying to navigate the franchises and understanding why nine teams are based in Sydney can be an arduous task, doubly so if you’re American. I’m here to help by giving you a small overview of each team, just like you guys did for us.

If you need a wider perspective, check out the Complete History of the NRL and the Complete History of the NRL (nerd edition).

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A deep dive for each NRL team’s 2018 season

The only thing more reliable than March bringing rugby league back is the slew of season previews that each and every media outlet feels the need to produce. I’m no different in this regard and here is what is likely to be the longest post I’ve ever compiled.

This year’s season preview takes a look at each team and is a mix of my usual statistics, a bit of SWOT analysis and some good old fashioned taking a wild punt and hoping it’ll make you look wise come October.

(A SWOT analysis is where you look at Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. There’s only one threat in the NRL, and that’s the other fifteen teams, so it’s more of a SWO analysis)

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Analysis – Stocky vs Reality: Did your team outperform? (Pt II)

The Stocky is the main forecasting tool driving the analysis on this site. It’s a simulator of the season ahead, using the Monte Carlo method and based on Elo ratings, that gives insight into the future performance of each club. My main interest has been the number of wins, as it determines ladder positions which in turn have a big impact on the finals. The Stocky might not be able to tell you which games a team will win, but it is good at telling you how many wins are ahead.

But how does a computer simulation (in reality, a very large spreadsheet) compare to reality? To test it, I’ve put together a graph of each team’s performance against what the Stocky projected for them. Each graph shows:

  • The Stocky’s projection for total wins (blue)
  • Converting that projection to a “pace” for that point in the season (red)
  • Comparing that to the actual number of wins (yellow)

It will never be exactly right, particularly as you can only ever win whole numbers of games and the Stocky loves a decimal point, but as we’ll see, the Stocky is not too bad at tracking form and projecting that forward.

This week is Part II, from North Queensland to Wests Tigers. Part I, from Brisbane to Newcastle, was last week. Also see this week’s projections update for some errors in the Stocky.

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