Other observers may have responded slightly less fervently, but they might still note the stark incongruity between the club’s sharp rise in popularity and on-field quality, and Nine’s seemingly static response to it.
The reality is the Raiders are unlikely ever to be given significantly more than those three games, and the reason comes down to market size.
There is only one NRL powerhouse in this department: Brisbane. A one-team city makes for soaring ratings and explains why Nine will broadcast a staggering 15 of the Broncos’ remaining 18 matches.
The Storm, Rabbitohs and Cowboys are on the next rung of the ladder. Both Melbourne and Souths have 12 games on Nine this year while Canberra, Newcastle, Manly and Gold Coast are at the other end of the market-size scale. Broadcast ratings reflect the reality that a team’s popularity – or even premiership strength – does not always translate to more eyeballs.
Combining Foxtel and Nine viewership figures between 2017 and 2019, the Raiders have drawn on average the third-fewest total viewers. Only Manly and Newcastle pulled in less over the last three seasons, according to ratings data obtained by the Herald.
“There is no doubt that we are not going to rate well in Sydney compared to Wests or Parramatta,” Raiders chief executive Don Furner explains.
“What people have forgotten is that when WIN was broadcasting us regionally, we rated really, really well. Nine owns Nine Sydney and Nine Brisbane but they didn’t own WIN. The ratings didn’t matter for them. It wasn’t creating revenue for them.
“Nine didn’t look at it and go – you add in the regionals and look, they’re up there. That has always been overlooked.”
Broadcasters choose most of the schedule but the NRL also has power to ensure lower-rating but popular teams like the Raiders get a go on free to air as well – this season they picked 10 free-to-air games.
Eight Raiders matches were initially slated for a slot on Nine before the coronavirus pandemic halted the campaign. In the revised draw, however, the NRL’s picks were reviewed and five of those games stripped. The decision came as little surprise to Furner.
“We argue [for more games] every year. I say the same stuff every year, for 15 years. Nothing has changed,” Furner said. “One of the great things about the NRL taking back control of the scheduling was that it wasn’t just about ratings in Sydney. It was a fairer distribution of coverage. I hope it goes back to that next year because we are disadvantaged.
“Our sponsors, I feel for them. When it is 17 matches to two – it’s not four to one or three to one – it’s just ridiculously biased. But it’s not as if we’re not used to that.”
The lack of free-to-air coverage presents a range of commercial challenges for the club as they compete for sponsorship dollars with the likes of Brisbane, Souths and Melbourne.
“There is no doubt about that, it’s a lot harder for us,” Furner said. “The Broncos have natural advantages in almost every aspect, when you compare them to us. When you compare them to most clubs.
“We’re used to it. It’s not as if this is a shock. The Warriors rate in Auckland, we rate in Canberra. It’s just that Sydney has four million people – Canberra has 400,000 people.”
Legendary Canberra administrator John McIntyre, who ran the Raiders in various roles for 30 years, said the club’s battle for mass-market appeal had always made it hard to attract big-name major sponsors. Iconic green jerseys bearing VideoEzy and Canberra Milk highlighted the Raiders’ need to partner with emerging or local companies.
“You look at the Broncos,” McIntyre said. “They’re on every Thursday or Friday night and that puts them into a completely different ball game in terms of their ability to attract corporate partners. That makes life really tough. But we have negotiated many a hurdle throughout the history of the Raiders.”
Sam is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.