Australian rugby rejects Roy Morgan research on tanking player numbers

The Wallabies in training. Photo: Brendon Thorne / Getty Images / File

Rugby union’s governing body in Australia has rejected findings from Roy Morgan research that reported plummeting levels of regular participation in the sport.

The Australian Rugby Union says it “strongly rejects” the Roy Morgan findings, which said that participation numbers has plummeted more than 60% between 2001 and 2016, to just 55,000 active players — equivalent to the participant numbers for ballroom dancing.

The Roy Morgan research findings, which Business Insider reported represented a threat to the sport’s future in Australia, were based on regular participation by players over 14 years of age.

In a statement, ARU General Manager of Community Rugby and Strategy, Andrew Larratt, said: “The Roy Morgan numbers are not supported by any other research and are strongly rejected by the ARU.”

The ARU acknowledged there had been a decline in club participation over recent years but said data in its forthcoming annual report for 2016 across age groups would show over 270,000 people “were involved in more than five games or structured sessions (in competitions and non-competition programs), reflecting an increase of 1.5% or 4,065 new participants year-on-year.”

The ARU acknowledged a decline in club XV participation of almost 8% between 2015 and 2015, and a further small decline last year. It highlighted research from the Australian Sports Commission which found “over 70,000 Australians aged 15+ participated in organised rugby at least once per week last year, while a further 117,000 had at least one organised rugby experience each month.”

The Roy Morgan findings ignited a mini-firestorm of debate in the rugby community. It is widely acknowledged that the sport is struggling in the face of competition from other codes, especially soccer and the AFL.

The game is also under financial pressure and a review by the sport’s governing body for the southern hemisphere, SANZAAR, is soon expected to recommend the axing of a team in the Super Rugby competition, which is seeing falling attendance numbers and has become confusing for fans.

The Financial Times reported on the cash crisis facing the game last weekend, noting average Super Rugby crowds fell below 14,000 last year. AFL matches attracted an average crowd of 33,188 in 2016 and rugby league 16,000.

Roy Morgan has been contacted for comment.

Here’s the full ARU statement:

The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) has rejected the research findings recently published by Roy Morgan on the number of ‘active participants’ in the sport of Rugby in Australia.

The report claimed that Rugby’s active participants (aged 14+) had dropped to 55,000 in 2016, however the ARU’s own data and a report published by the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) in December 2016 do not support this finding.

In figures set to be published in the ARU’s 2016 Annual Report, last year 271,528 participants were involved in more than five games or structured sessions (in competitions and non-competition programs), reflecting an increase of 1.5% or 4,065 new participants year-on-year. There was, however, a marginal 0.8% decline in Club XVs participation in 2016 (following on from a 7.6% decline in Club XVs from 2014 to 2015).

In 2016 there was also a 3.5% increase in participation in the U6-U11 age group which can be attributed to the successful rollout of the ARU’s five-week primary schools program ‘Game On’. In 2015, Game On was delivered to 26,469 primary school aged boys and girls which directly converted to the 3.5% uplift in 2016 junior club registrations in the U6-U11 age groups.

In its ‘AusPlay’ report on Australian sports participation,the ASC reported over 70,000 Australians aged 15+ participated in organised Rugby at least once per week last year, while a further 117,000 had at least one organised Rugby experience each month. The AusPlay research comprised continuous data collection in field every week over a 12-month period with 20,000 adults and 4,000 children surveyed, while Roy Morgan’s face-to-face survey was conducted with 14,000 adults.

ARU General Manager of Community Rugby and Strategy, Andrew Larratt said: “The Roy Morgan numbers are not supported by any other research and are strongly rejected by the ARU.

“More people had a Rugby experience than ever before in 2016, which is despite a less than one per cent drop in fifteen-a-side Rugby participation in our clubs. A significant portion of this participation growth came in the key Under 6 to Under 11 age group due to the strong success of the Game On program. As has been revealed, the Roy Morgan research was conducted only with persons over the age of 14.

“We acknowledge as a sport that there is much work to be done, particularly in arresting the decline in club fifteens participation. We are well advanced in our review of the Australian Rugby Strategic Plan, with a specific focus on this area of the game. There is however much evidence to suggest that our participation strategy at the junior level is generating some very encouraging results as we build up grassroots club rugby through growth in junior club rugby.”

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