Australian rugby union has revealed its official participation numbers, and it’s a mixed bag

Photo: Cameron Spencer/ Getty

The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) has revealed how many people are playing the game, showing that while parts of the game are growing, the traditional club base from which the national side is built is struggling.

A fortnight after the ARU was forced to issue a statement saying it “strongly rejects” Roy Morgan research, which claimed regular participation numbers fell more than 60% over 15 years, to just 55,000 active players, the organisation’s 2016 annual report claimed total participation was up 2.1% (5,632) to 273,095.

Here’s the ARU’s own report card from the annual report on how’s done in 2016.

Source: ARU 2016 annual report

The organisation defines participation as “five or more games or structured sessions”.

The ARU added that 275,307 people “had a rugby participation experience within a school, club, camp or event environment”.

The Roy Morgan findings were based on regular participation by players over 14 years of age and sparked anger and debate in rugby circles, despite the fact that the Australian Sports Commission’s (ASC) own figures also vary considerably with the ARU version.

The ASC figures, released in December last year, have rugby well outside the country’s top 20 sports with 141,500 participants aged 15+ (130,400 males, 11,200 females).

The ASC 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 best performer for the ARU in 2016 was sevens, which grew by 37% overall – 33% for women and 39% for men. The ARU says 11,400 new players tried the sport, including 4,000 high school students. Of those, 8,000 paid to take part.

The Game On program for primary school children, now in just its second year, beat its 2020 target after doubling its numbers to 26,469 in 2015 to 54,890 last year. The ASC helped drive the five-week, non-contact program in more than 5100 schools, with 60% from public schools. The ARU sees the program as a key driver for future players and it helped deliver a 3.5% increase in the number of kids registered to play U6-U11 club XVs rugby. But overall the club sector had a 0.8% decline, which the ARU appeared to see as a win compared to the 7.6% fall in 2014-15.

The report called the 7.5% decline in U12-U18 players “disappointing but not unexpected”.

“Nationwide, recruitment and retention of participants in the U12-U18 age bracket is challenging, as adults and teens especially have more sport and entertainment options at their disposal than ever before,” the ARU said.

The number of adult players also dropped slightly by 0.43%. However, women, perhaps inspired by the women’s team winning gold at the Rio Olympics, helped offset the fall in Club XVs numbers with a 24% jump.

There was growth in adult XVs in Queensland, Victoria, WA, ACT and Northern Territory.

CEO Bill Pulver said the ARU set itself “very ambitious targets for 2016 participation”.

“However, what we saw last year was a real appetite for rugby across the country. With the buzz around the Olympics, Sevens participation growth was huge,” he said.

“While we’re disappointed about the net decline in Club XVs, we have to recognise that our progress in growing other formats of the game is helping to build sustainable growth for the future, and that this growth will eventually have positive flow on effects into Club XVs rugby.”

Overall, more people were involved in rugby competitions and programs in 2016 than ever before. Across the country, there were 273,095 participants, reflecting an increase of 2.1% (or an additional 5,632).

The ARU says its 2017 focus is consolidating playing numbers “at the grassroots and community level and increasing the share of women playing”.

On the financial front, the ARU reported a turnaround of nearly $14 million on last year with a $3.7 million profit in 2016, compared to 2015’s $9.9m loss. A $4.8 million investment in the struggling Western Force hit the bottom line but the ARU said it was “a necessary investment to secure the short term financial viability of the team and ensure ARU’s commitments to SANZAAR and broadcasters continued to be fulfilled”.

The 2016-2020 broadcast rights deal struck last year delivered an 148% revenue increase over the previous deal and there was an 18% growth in sponsorship income, and crowd numbers for events such as the sold-out Sydney 7s and England series in June also helped the bottom line.