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NRL draw provides no excuse for poor crowds in 2018: Greenberg

NRL boss Todd Greenberg claims the 2018 draw provides the game with an opportunity to arrest a decline in crowd numbers after head office finally took control of the schedule from broadcasters.

The biggest bugbears of the clubs – five-day turnarounds, skewed free-to-air distributions and Brisbane’s monopoly of the Thursday and Friday night timeslots – have been, at least in part, addressed. As ever, there are anomalies, such as Penrith playing away to Melbourne for the third consecutive season without getting the premiers in their own backyard. However, the response from clubland has been overwhelmingly positive after the NRL nutted out a schedule without the influence of broadcasters.

Average crowds dipped below the 15,000 mark in 2017 for the first time in 13 years, down to 14,919. While the NSW government’s investment in stadia infrastructure is expected to boost numbers in the long term, the schedule was the NRL’s most immediate opportunity to address the issue.

“Every time we put a draw out we have a lens of trying to drive crowds in different ways,” NRL CEO Todd Greenberg said.

“I’m very confident the draw gives clubs the opportunity to work really hard to improve their own membership and crowds.

“I’m very conscious that’s a big deliverable and we’re in this together. The NRL and the clubs need to drive that hard.”

There will be more clashes between traditional rivals, five-day turnarounds have been slashed from 43 two years ago to 24 and there is a more even spread of teams being shown on free-to-air television. Brisbane will again dominate with 16 appearances on the Nine Network, although the number of matches they enjoy on Thursday or Friday nights will drop from 18 to 13. Next season will give 11 teams at least 10 matches on Nine, up from five clubs last year.

The toughest timeslot for drawing crowds will be the Friday 6pm game, which was introduced for the first time last year as a replacement for Monday night football. Greenberg said the slot was here to stay for the remainder of the new broadcast deal, which begins next year.

“It has worked, absolutely. When you compare it to Monday night football, it’s had great progress,” Greenberg said.

“It’s only the first year we’ve done it, so we have to keep at it to evolve it to improve for people watching on television and those at the games.

“It is difficult to attract the right crowds, albeit the markets like Penrith, Newcastle and New Zealand has a very popular following in that spot.

“We’ve got to play those games at the right areas and the right stadiums, with the right match-ups. We’ve made some good progress to do that.”

Other features of the draw include 28 Sunday matches in Sydney, four double-headers, a stand-alone State of Origin match and five matches in regional NSW. The sprinkling of byes means each team will only lose their Origin stars for just one interstate game.

The Panthers believed the draw would have been better still had the clubs been able to provide feedback before it was finalised. The mountain men have again been forced to make the game’s toughest road trip, to AAMI Park, without getting the opportunity to host.

“I can’t believe we are playing Melbourne for the last three years in Melbourne,” said Panthers CEO Brian Fletcher.

“We played Melbourne in ’16 and ’17 in Melbourne. Then you come to a draw in ’18 and you think if you’re only going to play them once, you’d look at it and say it’s a no-brainer to play it in Penrith.

“They’re just simple things. You’d think they could send out a draft and if there are any glaring errors you could point them out to them. Now you can’t change it.

“You talk about putting out a cap on football club spending to make everything equal and then we have to play away to Melbourne three years in a row.”

Highlights of the opening round include Dragons signing Ben Hunt taking on the Broncos for the first time and Roosters recruit James Tedesco taking on former team Wests Tigers.

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