Rugby fans appeared to move past the axing of the Western Force and switch back on to Super Rugby last year with a nine per cent uplift in average audience across Australia.
But with the move from five franchises to four the competition's pay television audience in the big cities languished just below the A-League, providing further impetus, on the eve of the new season, for Australia to push for change in the next broadcast cycle.
Super Rugby ratings were up on 2017 numbers but now languish below the A-League in metropolitan cities. Credit:AAP
The five-nation provincial competition, which was once considered the jewel in the crown of Fox Sports, also continued to fall well below its winter rivals the AFL and NRL, attracting less than a third of their audiences on the pay broadcaster.
Rugby Australia figures showed Super Rugby matches played in Australia attracted an average audience of 71,000 last year, up nine per cent on 2017, a season that was dogged by speculation over which Australian team would be cut from the competition and by a record poor performance from the NSW Waratahs, the team representing Australia's largest fan base.
But further Oztam ratings obtained by the Herald showed that figure plummeted in the five metropolitan cities, attracting an average pay television audience of just 50,000, which was less than the A-League's 51,000 and a fraction of the NRL's 164,000 and AFL's 167,000. Super Rugby went from five franchises in 2017 to four in 2018 after the Force's axing.
The NRL and AFL surged past 300,000 on free to air television, while the A-League registered an average audience of 50,000 on free to air, via its one match a week broadcast on Channel 10.
The Super Rugby picture was worse when the competition's overseas games were factored in, falling to an average audience across of 23,000 across the five metropolitan cities.
The overall picture in the context of the Australian market would trouble the game's administrators as they enter a year of negotiations over the shape of Super Rugby from 2021 onwards.
It also provides some explanation for Australian administrators' cautious but strong enthusiasm for the World League concept, which would involve selling a global Test-level competition to broadcasters for a higher price than any individual union could negotiate on their own or in their southern and northern hemisphere blocs.
The next World Rugby meeting to discuss the concept is slated for March, with each of the nations using the time since their recent Dublin meeting to take an initial concept and broadcast estimate back to their unions and boards.
The numbers appear to stack up, with Australian sources confirming an English news report that the early broadcast talks returned a figure that stood to boost each country's coffers by about $18 million a year, over and above what they could negotiate for their provincial and domestic competitions.
But there remain considerable hurdles, not least of which are fears the concept could dilute the World Cup. Also worrying all unions is how large a revenue share would be taken off the top by World Rugby, who are brokering the talks.
At home, the arrival of Fox Sports' streaming service Kayo Sports will add another layer to Super Rugby discussions, with the new entrant boasting 115,000 subscribers. Kayo shows all rugby games live and provide a split-screen feature that will allow subscribers to watch, for example, an NRL and a Super Rugby game at the same time.
At home, RA announced a new agreement with entertainment group Crocmedia that, along with their existing arrangement with ABC Grandstand, will provide live radio coverage of every Super Rugby match played in Australia.
All Waratahs and Rebels home games will also be broadcast on 2SM in Sydney and SEN in Melbourne.
In Canberra veteran caller Tim Gavel announced his return to the airwaves to call all Brumbies home matches in 2019 on ABC Radio, while Quentin Hull will once again be the voice of Reds home matches and Andrew Moore will lead the commentary team for Waratahs home games.
ABC Grandstand also renewed its partnership with RUGBY.com.au for the 2019 season, which enables all Australian home matches to be broadcast on RUGBY.com.au Radio. This coverage is also be available on the new Rugby Xplorer app.
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