Chief executive Dave Smith has welcomed the NRL’s $925 million broadcast deal with Channel Nine as a win for fans and player welfare but admits rugby league has a significant challenge to arrest a decline in crowds.
The NRL announced on Monday that Nine had secured the rights to broadcast the NRL from 2018 to 2022.
The network will screen matches four days a week, twice as many as now available on free-to-air TV.
Matches will be screened during prime time on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and on Sundays at 4pm.
“For our fans, I want to make sure this is all about the fans, this is a huge step forward,” Smith said.
“The point about free-to-air is that more and more of our fans are going to have access to the game in whatever shape and form it is.”
However, more live games could further adversely affect the NRL’s attendance figures, which are down six per cent this year and are the worst since 2004.
Smith said a more accessible product would help to grow the game further but it also means the game’s governing body and its clubs would have to work harder to lure fans to the games.
“This game is wonderful to watch on TV, it always has been and it always will be so in a way are competing with ourselves at a certain level,” Smith said.
“It is a constant tension, and I think it is partly solved by having a strong game-day proposition.
“(Having) us in control of the schedule and the draw … also getting decent stadium infrastructure across all parts of the game and right now we haven’t got that.”
The NRL has regained control of the playing schedule from the long-time rugby league broadcaster which means they can decide when and where games are played.
Smith said the NRL had identified 85 premium games such as local derbies to help give clubs equal exposure and to make the schedule more crowd friendly.
Under the new schedule, State of Origin II will be played on a Sunday night during a stand-alone representative weekend.
International football, including the Trans Tasman Test, will be played at the end of the NRL season.
Monday night football will be axed, with the future of the City/Country fixture under a cloud.
The premiership will be reduced one round from the current 26.
Player welfare has been improved under the new schedule, Smith said. Five-day turnarounds between roundsd will be axed and there will be a greater break between Origin fixtures.
In a statement, the Rugby League Players’ Association said the new deal had taken important steps in reducing player burnout.
The NRL said it was continuing to negotiate with pay TV broadcaster Fox Sports and any potential digital partners.
Smith said the new deal was almost for the same amount as the NRL earned for their entire current broadcast deal, including pay TV and digital rights.