In 2021, the NRL is the dominant code in the northeastern states of Australia, with membership numbers growing exponentially each year and over 70 million tuning in to watch on TV over the course of the year. However, rugby league wasn’t always so popular, and in most other rugby-loving nations around the world, it doesn’t get near the same attention. So just how did it become so popular down under? This is how it all began, and how it’s evolved over the years.
An unharmonious beginning
Late in the 19th century, the rugby landscape began to change in England, with a large group separating from the RFU as a result of pay disputes, ultimately forming what would become the code of rugby league.
In Australia, the RFU controlled the sport and subsequently union remained the dominant code, but a little over a decade later the same would happen, with players unhappy at the lack of compensation they received for playing the game. By 1908, club competitions were formed that would ultimately become the basis of rugby league in Australia, and the seeds for now one of the most popular sports in the country were sown.
The continued development
The NSWRL (New South Wales Rugby League) was initially the premier league in New South Wales only, but over time it continued to develop to garner attention outside of state borders. In essence, the league remained in much the same form throughout almost the entirety of the 20th century, but its popularity grew exponentially during this time.
The league was first broadcast live on the radio in 1924, while 33 years later Australia demonstrated its commitment to the code by hosting the Rugby League World Cup for the first time ever. 1961 saw the first game ever shown live on TV, while in 1965 the Grand Final saw what was at the time a record 78,056 fans attend the game, indicative of the growth of the league since its humble beginnings a little over half a century earlier.
The league goes national
It was in 1988 that the first non-NSW teams entered the competition, with both the Brisbane Broncos and the Gold Coast joining a league which was still governed by the NSWRL. Their success in the ensuing years saw a push for ownership to be given to the Australian Rugby League (ARL), and though this failed it paved the way for what is now known as the Super League War.
This ‘war’ saw the league split into two, with Rupert Murdoch and News Limited organising a Super League in 1997, to which they poached many ARL clubs and a number of highly talented players from around the country. Clearly, this wasn’t a win for anyone and the best talent in the country was spread across the two leagues, but fortunately, it lasted just a season before the two sides kissed and made up, and the NRL was formed.
The growth of the national competition
Since then the NRL has continued to go from strength to strength as a national competition. While Sydney is still the heartland – with 11 of the league’s 16 teams coming from either the Harbour City or regional NSW and many of them among the best in the NRL – the five interstate (or New Zealand-based) teams have proven to be a valuable part of the league. The Broncos have been the most successful team in the NRL era and are the biggest contributor to the NRL’s overall attendance numbers, while the Melbourne Storm have been a dominant on-field force representing Sydney’s southern neighbours, who are typically more interested in the AFL, cricket and even horse racing.
The NRL still falls a long way short of the AFL in a number of key indicators of popularity, but the league has seen incredible growth in memberships in recent years. Indeed, a little over a decade ago there were just three teams in the league with 15,000 members. By 2019, the last full and uninterrupted incarnation of the league, just Gold Coast, Cronulla and Manly failed to pass that mark, and given the latter of those three teams is deep in the finals hunt according to Betway’s latest 2021 NRL Premiership odds, that number may soon be reduced to just two.
The NRL has had a fascinating and at times controversial past, with control and ownership of Australia’s top tier passing through many hands over the past century. Over the past 23 years, however, the league has managed to reach a relative state of calm and is now well-poised to continue to blossom in the years to come.