This photo sums up a worrying problem for rugby league

Two young Sharks fans watch their side go down to the Queensland Cowboys in Sunday’s NRL elimination final at Allianz Stadium. Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Talk to rugby league fans about the poor crowds for the NRL’s finals season games in Sydney on the weekend they’re a bit like the Manly and Cronulla coaches, who blamed the referees for their season-ending performances.

Sea Eagles and Sharks fans refuse to travel, fans argue. That’s why just 15,408 people went to the Manly-Penrith game at Allianz Stadium, while next door, the Swans won against Essendon at a sold out SCG, which set a new record crowd of 46,323.

When Cronulla was pipped by North Queensland on Sunday just 16,115 fans were there.

They’re the two lowest attendances for finals football in six years, despite the fact that the NRL tried to lure fans with free transport, discount tickets and food offers.

All up, 52,735 went to Moore Park for the three NRL finals games. And The Daily Telegraph’s sports editor-at-large, Phil Rothfield, who has been a loud and vocal critic of the code for what it costs to go to games, wasn’t buying the 21,212 figure for the Roosters v Broncos game.

The code’s saving grace was sports-mad Melbourne, where 22,626 turned up to see the Storm pip the Eels.

Meanwhile, the average for the AFL on the weekend was 58,832 per match for a total of 235,328 fans across four games – three times more than the 75,361 at the NRL’s four matches. There were 95,028 at the MCG when Geelong got smashed by Richmond.

The NRL’s aggregate figure was its lowest since 2008.

In a column earlier this year, Rothfield said the reason NRL crowds have fallen 10% in the last five years is because the league had priced people out of “a working class game” when it’s costing a family around $220 per match by the time tickets, parking and food are taken into account.

Jack Bird of the Sharks scores in front of no one. Photo: Matt King/Getty Images

And NRL’s not the only rugby code with those woes. The ARU is also losing its fan base.

When Canberra played its quarter-finals match in the Super Rugby, less than 10,000 turned up.

Crowds for the Wallabies test matches are also down, including the Bledisloe Cup . Last month’s crowd of 54,846 was nearly half the record — the lowest ever for a match against the Kiwis at Sydney’s Olympic stadium.

When 32,987 went to see the Swans beat the Gold Coast at the SCG, just 10,992 bothered to turn up next door for the Waratahs v Jaguars Super Rugby game next door afterwards.

Rugby league fans like to argue that it’s all about TV now, but the AFL smashed the code on that score too, averaging 300,000 more viewers per game than the NRL over the weekend.

Friday night’s Cats v Tigers match was the evening’s top rating TV show with 1.069 viewers across 5 city metro stations.

While the opening finals round crowds for the NRL were the lowest since 2008, CEO Todd Greenberg said he was “a little disappointed” but Sydney’s average crowds “have not changed for the best part of two decades — they are usually 1 or 2% up or down annually, year on year”.

The NRL is hoping that fans will turn up for the Parramatta semi-final at Sydney’s Olympic stadium this weekend, while Brisbane’s match against Penrith at Suncorp Stadium is expected to sell out.

Greenberg argues that the NSW government’s plan to spend $1.6 billion on football stadiums in Sydney is essential to luring back fans and rejected calls for the early finals matches to return to suburban grounds.

“The reality is [crowd numbers] won’t change until we have a significant change in the stadiums in the city,” he said at the launch of the finals series last week.

“Parramatta coming online in 2019 will be the biggest shift we’ve seen for crowds in Sydney rugby league for the best part of 20 or 30 years. If we end up having a purpose-built rectangular stadium here at Sydney Olympic Park it will be nothing short of phenomenal for fans in Sydney.”

The bill for transforming the former Olympic stadium to a rectangular field is expected to cost up to $900 million. Parramatta is also getting a new 30,000 seat stadium, costing taxpayers $300 million.

The NRL is also hoping for an upgrade at Moore Park’s Allianz stadium, home ground of the Roosters, where the crowds at the 46,000 seat venue for league games this season ranged between 7,000 and 16,000.

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