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The AFL and NRL will dominate for a long time yet

By Chris Lewis - posted Tuesday, 18 May 2021

While I enjoy watching international matches in the two major global football codes, namely football and rugby union, most Australians are likely to prefer watching Australian Rules and Rugby league with regard to the best domestic leagues for some time yet.   

Quite simply, while we all have our own preferences with regard to supporting the various football codes, both the A-League and Super Rugby cannot compare with the Australian Football League (AFL) and National Rugby League (NRL) which continue to dominate the major football leagues in terms of public interest in terms of attendances, television viewing and sponsorship.

If we look at analysis of 2019 data, of the NRL’s $556 million total revenue, around 60% came from broadcasting with the average television audience 459,000, 10% came from game receipts, 16% came from sponsorships and 16% from wagering (revenue from poker machines in league clubs).


For the AFL with an average television audience of then just over 1 million in 2018, 70% of its $794 million revenue came from broadcast rights and corporate sponsors, while an estimated 14.5% came from game receipts although the AFL’s annual report does not specifically state game receipt revenue.

At a time when broadcasters continue their bidding wars for sporting events, albeit within an increasing awareness of which sports can generate profits, it is football that has suffered most as Foxtel alone reported $180 million savings over the next three years through less payment obligations to sports due to the coronavirus.

While it was suspected early in 2020 that the AFL and NRL may lose $100 million each in 2020 in terms of revenue, before both codes recovered to produce vastly smaller losses of around $22.8 million and $24.7 million respectively, it was football which suffered most as the $57 million per season broadcasting deal to 2023 was scrapped and replaced with a one-year broadcast deal worth $32 million at best.

With Football Australia reporting in November 2020 that the 2020-2021 financial year would deliver a loss of $7.3 million, much lower broadcasting revenue represents a much higher proportion of total revenue which was predicted to decline from $106.4 million in 2019-20 to $82.7 million in 2020-21.

Football Australia is not alone given that Rugby Australia in April 2021 also reported a net deficit of $27.1 million for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a $45.7 million reduction in revenue only offset by $31.2 million in drastic cost-cutting measures including a $7.7 million reduction in player costs (down 45%).

Like New Zealand Rugby, Rugby Australia is now considering selling a stake to foreign investment to prop up declining revenue.


It is clear that the AFL and NRL, as primarily domestic based games, remain in the best position of the Australian football codes to prosper in terms of getting the best possible broadcasting deal as the two leagues attract the most fans by far in terms of attendances and television audiences.

In 2021 thus far, the AFL has an average 2021 crowd of 28,600 compares reasonably well with the 2019 average of 36,300 given some games have been played before empty stadiums in Perth alone.

The NRL has also done reasonably well with the 2021 average to now above 13,800 compared to 16,100 in 2019.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis, who completed a First Class Honours degree and PhD (Commonwealth scholarship) at Monash University, has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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