While the international dimension of Rugby League has traditionally played second fiddle to the sport’s club game, a comparison between League and Union’s flagship international tournaments is not a flattering one for the thirteen man game.
Many hailed the increased competitiveness of Fiji, PNG and Tonga as a sign of improvement in the tournament’s spectacle value, but a crunching of numbers suggests the gulf between the codes is, if anything, widening.
And increased competition is so very badly needed in the sport. Outside of New Zealand’s shock win in 2008, no side other than Australia has won the tournament since 1972 – when a Great Britain team held the trophy aloft. By comparison, since Rugby Union’s World Cup inaugural tournament in 1987, four different teams have won, while a fifth – France – has contested and lost three finals.
Yet at the core of the gulf is the sheer number of people in attendance.
Last year’s RLWC saw 373,461 people pass through the stiles, with an average attendance across its 28 games of 13,338, a drop of 18 percent on the previous tournament’s average of 16,374.
Its union equivalent in London in 2015 saw 2,477,805 attend the tournament’s 48 games; this despite RWC2015 being the most expensively ticketed large-scale sporting event in history.
The average attendance of 51,621 was three times that of league’s 2017 event.
Yet this attendance was not down to stadium size alone. RLWC 2017 had a stadium capacity fill percentage of just 49.75. Nowhere was this more apparent than in England’s pool game with Lebanon, where just 10,237 turned up at Allianz Park, a stadium which holds 44,000.
The RLWC’s ability to fill stadiums was way behind RWC2015, which enjoyed a very healthy 95 percent fill rate across its 48 games.
Many blamed the Australian public’s apparent indifference to attending matches; there was an average attendance of just 11,436 across the 18 games played on Australian soil.
Neighbours New Zealand managed an average attendance of 17,601 in the seven games hosted in a country where the fifteen man code is traditionally king. It should be noted that the two matches held in PNG were both sellouts, albeit in the modestly sized 14,800 capacity Oil Search National Football Stadium.
In fact union’s least attended World Cup, the somewhat thrown together 1987 tournament, still managed a gross attendance of 604,500, significantly more than league’s record-breaking 2013 World Cup in England, which managed a solid 458,483.
While the NRL may still reign supreme over union in Australia, it has also seen a fall in numbers in recent years, a decline that is broadly in line with decreases in attendances in the majority of sporting codes right across the globe.
If World Cups are a vehicle to sell a sport to a wider global audience, then Rugby League would be advised to arrest this decline, otherwise it runs the risk of falling even further behind its union equivalent.