NRL hitting new heights

League Express editor MARTYN SADLER on a spellbinding start to the new NRL season.

It would be hard for anyone interested in Rugby League not to be aware of the sensational start to the NRL season.

Attendances and TV viewing figures have risen significantly and there have been some astonishing matches, with most games being contested until the final minutes or, in some cases, until golden-point time.

The opening match of the season set the tone, when Melbourne Storm travelled to Parramatta and earned a golden-point victory. And on Thursday Parramatta hosted another golden-point game against the NRL title-holders Penrith and this time they came out on the right side of the golden-point result.

Then on Friday we had the battle of Brisbane, when the unbeaten Dolphins, playing in their debut season, hosted the unbeaten Brisbane Broncos at Suncorp Stadium in front of more than 51,000 spectators, with the Broncos inflicting the first defeat on the new boys, but only after clinching the game by six points in the final two minutes.

Looking at some of the figures, 159,546 attended Round 3 of the NRL at an average of 19,943 per game – about 4,000 more than the NRL’s regular average crowd.

449,403 fans attended matches over the first three rounds, compared to 360,736 over the first three rounds last year.

Similarly, the TV viewing figures are on a rising trend, while the sponsorship revenues have also increased substantially.

Round 4 of the 2023 NRL season was attended by 162,690 people at an average of 20,336 per game and 54.13% of capacity. It was up 30% on the same round in 2022, and the season itself is up 31% on 2022 after four rounds.

Those are remarkable figures and they show that the NRL is in great health, despite some of the problems we sometimes read about.

It’s tempting to speculate on why there has been such a significant growth of interest in Rugby League among the Australian public.

Inevitably, it’s difficult to point to one single factor responsible for the rise. But the contributing factors must surely include the improved stadia at many NRL clubs, the tightness of the matches, and the emergence of a posse of new young star players, many of whom have attractive personalities when speaking to the media.

But one thing that we also shouldn’t underestimate is the creation of the NRLW – the NRL women’s competition, which has already been an extraordinary success in its short life and which has now adopted full professionalism.

We have also seen Women’s Rugby League develop in the northern hemisphere, although we have yet to adopt full professionalism. But the great thing is that Rugby League is no longer viewed as just a man’s game. Women’s Rugby League has allowed Rugby League to broaden its reach in both hemispheres and one by-product of that is that the snobbish attitude towards Rugby League, which was sometimes encouraged by NRL players’ bad behaviour away from the pitch, has been reduced.

Not many years ago, the NRL pre-season would be characterised by a slew of stories about players misbehaving themselves, sometimes to a criminal degree. But those stories have been largely absent in the build-up to the 2023 season.

This article features in Martyn Sadler’s ‘Talking Rugby League’ column in this week’s League Express. To take out a subscription, go to