Grounds for optimism on TV audiences

This is an updated version of the Talking Rugby League article that first appeared in Monday’s issue of League Express


The average audience for Rugby League on Sky Sports seems to be rising this season, if the first ten televised matches of the season are anything to go by.

The average audience so far this season for both the Thursday and Friday matches, but before this week’s matches, is 214,200. That compared to the average figure for the whole of the 2013 season, which was 156,400, so it’s quite a significant increase. The recent game between Huddersfield and Leeds created a new record so far for the season, with a peak TV audience of 368,400.

Of course the figures are only useful if they can be compared with something else to put them into context.

The Huddersfield-Leeds game, for example, drew an average audience for the match itself of 276,200. It was broadcast on Sky Sports 1, and it was up against a live football game on Sky Sports 2 between Bury and Rochdale, which drew 84,600 viewers. A live under-20s rugby union game on Sky Sports 3 between England and Wales drew 77,400 and live coverage of the World Golf Championship on Sky Sports 4 drew 52,100 viewers.

The figures continued to be good for last Friday’s game between Wigan and Hull Kingston Rovers, which drew an average match audience of 269,000, and again it beat the competition very easily, including a Scottish Premier League football game between Kilmarnock and Celtic, which drew 83,000 on BT Sport 1 and the Formula 1 show on Sky’s Formula 1 channel, which drew 63,400 on the eve of the Formula 1 season.

So Rugby League is doing well, and I’m sure those figures will please the RFL.

The question is whether the good news can carry on, or whether the figures will decline.

One thing that may make the figures fall away is the habit we have in our sport of putting matches on to compete directly against the live match being broadcast on Sky Sports.

For example, while Wigan and Hull KR featured on Sky Sports 1 last week, three other Super League clubs were hosting games, inevitably reducing the potential TV audience. I wonder how many viewers would have been registered if many Rugby League fans hadn’t been out watching their own teams.

We are the only sport, as far as I am aware, that allows its clubs to stage live games that go up against televised matches. It’s almost as though we don’t want big TV audiences.

Nonetheless, the trend appears to be heading in the right direction, and I’m sure the reason is partly because most of the games so far this season have provided great entertainment.

The live audience will face a big challenge tonight (Friday), when the selected TV game is Leeds Rhinos v London Broncos. It’s desperately difficult to imagine anything other than an easy victory for the Rhinos, and I wonder how many people will want to sit through that game.

Selecting games for broadcast before the season begins must be difficult. Who can possibly know before the season begins which game in the sixth round of matches will offer the best value for money?

As it happens, the visit of Castleford on Sunday to Salford, with Rangi Chase ready to return to action, would of course have been a natural TV game. What a shame it isn’t!

Incidentally, we all like to think that things are marvellous down under in the NRL, but the opening weekend of the NRL competition seems to have registered a roughly 10 per cent decline in TV audiences from a year earlier.

So not everything in the garden is rosy in Oz.