In an exclusive for Wide World of Sports, The NRL Economist Ramy Haidar uncovers an explosive letter claiming $100 million has been squandered on participation, and reveals how Peter V'landys plans to deal with the issue.
Participation is a major area of concern for the NRL.
According to Sport Australia's AusPlay survey released in October 2020, there are 159,000 adult (15+) and 132,500 (0-14) participants. The total of 291,500 is significantly behind the AFL's 898,000 participants.
So why does the NRL have so few participants relative to its audience size?
Some NRL clubs believe that previous programs and spending were burdened by bureaucracy. One such example is the South Sydney Rabbitohs, whose CEO Blake Solly co-signed a July 15, 2020 letter directed to the NSWRL.
In it he claimed: "Clearly, something is deeply wrong with the status quo when the NRL Club reads in the shareholders annual report that $100 million has been invested in 'Development' or 'Grassroots' over a three-year period; however, its junior league partner, who should benefit most from this investment, derives minimal results from or has little evidence of this funding."
The letter also offers a variety of positive initiatives the former general manager of the Super League would like to see introduced, including;
– Offering a competitive and a non-competitive stream in Mini and Mod League.
– Offering an aspirational and participation stream from 13s to Under-20s.
– Converting the Harold Mathews competition to a one-weekend round robin competition.
– Converting the Ron Massey Cup and Sydney Shield Competitions to a knockout tournament.
– Aiming for eight teams per competition in all junior leagues.
Privately, clubs are seeking a decentralisation of participation policy in order to leverage government grants. Alerted to these issues, ARLC chairman Peter V'landys requested a 'participation council' be formed to review the previous strategy.
The committee, led by commissioner Kate Jones, includes NRL CEO Andrew Abdo, rugby league Immortal Mal Meninga, NSWRL CEO Dave Trodden, QRL managing director Rob Moore and club representative Solly.
Clearly satisfied with V'landys' positive intervention, Solly explained: "It's very much in its infancy, but they're asking specific questions about how to get it right. Kate's influence is very encouraging."
When asked why change is needed, Solly said: "It's not about ticking boxes and saying we have experience-based participation like the AFL's Auskick. Auskick is not true participation."
Indeed, Auskick clinics count every student as a participant regardless of whether they were engaged or not. That masked tally is then used by the AFL to justify more funding and playing fields.
In contrast, the NRL's council aims to genuinely grow club-based participation to achieve real growth. That is, committed players in registered teams.
The greatest challenge to achieving this is identified in the NRL's own research report 'Investigating motives that influence Australia's Rugby League retention rates', which identifies one of the major factors affecting participation is weight differences.
Both kids' and adults' fear of injury prevents them from playing, with weight difference a real concern. Growing participation will only occur when this concern is addressed.
Disclaimer: The NRL Economist Ramy Haidar is employed by NRL club the Manly Sea Eagles. You can follow him on Twitter @ramy_haidar