If you thought that 2019’s grand final run might be the start of a new era for the Canberra Raiders, the NRL would like to disavow you of such a naive notion. Things are still the same. The Canberra Raiders still don’t matter. At least at NRL HQ.
The Daily Telegraph is reporting that NRL has released its ‘blockbuster’ first round schedule. But last season’s darling, the team that pushed the premiers all the way (and then some) have been given the worst game of the slate – the dreaded 6pm on Friday. To rub salt into the wounds, it’s a home game, meaning the Raiders will have to start their 2020 title run in front of a unnecessarily small crowd.
It’s worth pointing out that the NRL didn’t pick the Raiders to play in the 6pm slot, the TV companies did. But once Canberra was scheduled against the Titans this was a fait accompli.
After a finals run in which they were the inspiration to a city, captured the imagination of every red-blooded rugby league fan nationwide, and turned the grand final into the spectacle it almost never is, the Raiders may have hoped for a bit of interest from the game’s organising body.
Alas, the NRL has said can take your ‘six again’. After starting 2019 at 6pm on Sunday, they’ll again get a terrible draw with another six, again.
The Raiders had a litany of 6pm games to start 2019. You can bet when the draw is released in the near future, they’ll have another run of them.
The NRL will tell you there’s good reasons for this. They want big TV ratings in the early weeks. Canberra and Gold Coast don’t drive ratings, so they need to put bigger markets at the times that people can actually get their eyeballs on games (either at the ground or on a TV). Everyone knows that 6pm Friday game is notoriously hard to get in front of. So put the teams that don’t matter there.
Brisbane plays Friday night at 8pm. The Eels gets a Thursday night game. The Sea Eagles Sunday afternoon. The Raiders get the doldrums.
I guess any time you have to get the world beating Canterbury Bulldogs on free to air you gotta take it. For the record it’s the third year in a row that the Raiders will start with a game against the Titans.
These games matter. In 2020 the Green Machine will have as much enthusiasm as the start of any season in recent memory. Instead of a big home game, the Raiders get a soft start to the season. It matters for attendance. It matters for eyeballs on TV. That matters for sponsorship, both official and in the way of third parties. It’s how the rich stay rich and the small clubs get screwed.
It’s also shortsighted from the league. They continue to mine the same six fan bases for all their worth, showing no interest in diversifying their risk. Build smaller fan bases by giving them proper free to air games. TV exposure gives well run teams a chance to build their brand in ways the league, so focused on just the immediate numbers, probably haven’t considered yet. The Raiders were the most streamed side in the game last year. This is partly because they are rarely on free to air, and the difference is hundreds of thousands verse millions of eyeballs. Prime time games are still the most important product distribution. It’s how you get access to new and neutral fans. No matter what they do on the field, Canberra gets unequal access to this distribution.
I get that the NRL is not out to get the Raiders and they’re just trying to maximise eyeballs elsewhere. And I get why the 6pm Friday game exists; I just think it should primarily be filled by the Warriors (and is a great example of why a second New Zealand team should exist).
But certainly when someone has to “take on for the team” it’s almost always Canberra. And this is just another example.
Turns out winning doesn’t change a thing.