NRL powerbrokers are banking on a more fan-friendly draw to boost flagging crowd attendances next season.
Rugby league has endured a worrying slump in crowds to kick off the last two seasons but in the 2016 draw to be released this week, NRL officials have put a renewed focus on drawing more fans through the gates with designated marquee fixtures.
Sydney Roosters will host arch-rivals South Sydney in Sam Burgess’ return to rugby league in round one next season on Sunday afternoon, March 6 in a possible sell-out at Allianz Stadium, in a prime example of the NRL’s new policy.
Sonny Bill Williams’ comeback to the 13-a-side game in the corresponding fixture in 2013 on a Thursday night drew a record crowd of over 35,000 to the venue, with almost one million viewers tuning into Channel Nine.
The NRL is hopeful that result will be bettered for Burgess in 2016.
The NRL’s round one crowds in 2014 were the worst in a decade and the crowds over the first three rounds this year were the lowest in 12 years. The game’s governing body is attempting to reverse the alarming trend with a series of fixtures over the opening rounds of 2016 in the family-friendly 4pm Sunday afternoon timeslot.
Head of football Todd Greenberg acknowledged the NRL want to bring the fans back to games in 2016.
“We have certainly made an effort to ensure that some of our best match-ups and blockbusters are in family-friendly timeslots,” Greenberg said.
“Whilst I don’t want to give too much away, we will have a number of strong Sydney derbies on Sundays through the opening rounds of the premiership.”
The southern derby between Cronulla and St George Illawarra will headline the second round in the harbour city, while the Dragons will take on Souths at the SCG in round three and host Penrith in round four.
The battle of the west will play out as Parramatta host Penrith in round five. Elsewhere, the Eels will reportedly host Brisbane in the first Thursday night match of the season, while the Cowboys look set to begin their premiership defence on a Saturday night to appease their regional supporter base.
Crowd figures dropped to an average of 15,074 last season, their lowest figure since 2004.
On average, crowds dropped more than 800 fans per match from 2014 to 2015, and were almost 1500 fans down on the 2005 on average.