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NRL vs AFL: AFL to kick financial goals amid NRL scandals

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by Tommy Wu
Mar 19 2019

Following kick-off of the 2019 NRL season last week and ahead of the first match of the AFL season this coming Thursday, industry research company IBISWorld has explored how the two football codes compare off the field.

Both football codes showed strong results in profit, attendance, participation and sponsorship for the 2018 financial year. However, South Sydney Rabbitohs’ CEO Blake Solly estimates that over $10 million in potential sponsorship could have been lost over the off-season due to the recent flurry of scandals involving some of the NRL’s top clubs.

See below how the NRL and the AFL weighed up against each other in terms of profit, game attendance, game participation and sponsorship in the 2018 financial year.


Code Financials

According to IBISWorld, both football codes recorded a strong profit for the 2018 financial year. The AFL’s profit was bolstered by broadcast revenue growth and a successful 2018 finals campaign, while a new broadcast deal and a rise in revenue from corporate partnerships significantly boosted the NRL’s profit.

“The AFL showed a consistent result over the past year with revenue rising by 3.5%. A large part of this growth was due to a continued rise in broadcasting and AFL media revenue, while the code’s commercial operations also supported its performance over the year,” said IBISWorld Senior Industry Analyst, Tommy Wu.

“The NRL’s latest broadcast deal with Nine, News Corp, Fox Sports and Telstra kicked in during the 2018 season, which boosted broadcast revenue by 54.2%, compared with the AFL’s broadcast revenue growth of 2.7%. However, the AFL’s broadcasting rights deal still surpasses the NRL at $2.5 billion over six years, compared with $1.8 billion over five years,” Mr. Wu added. 


Game Attendances and Television Ratings

According to IBISWorld research, the AFL won game attendance, with the code continuing to record growth in attendance numbers for both its home and away season and finals. However, the NRL has performed better in terms of television ratings.

Mr Wu believes this result is due to the fact that the AFL places greater emphasis on attendance and viewing the game live, as opposed to the NRL, which is typically more TV-friendly. The AFL’s initiatives over the past several years, including lowering or freezing food and drink prices in Melbourne, and building and developing new stadiums and facilities in Perth, Sydney and Adelaide, have helped boost crowds.

“However, the NRL has also been pushing its membership numbers in recent years and has recorded membership numbers and growth. The NRL has only placed emphasis on promoting its membership base since 2013, in contrast to the AFL, which has built its membership base since 1984. Over the next five years, new stadiums and developments will also be completed, including the Western Sydney Stadium, the Sydney Football Stadium rebuild and the Stadium Australia refurbishment, which will likely help boost game attendances,” said Mr Wu.

“In terms of television ratings, it is a lot closer than what people might think. While NRL TV ratings have remained largely consistent over the past year, the AFL’s ratings declined by 12.8% in the 2018 regular season, which highlights the NRL’s strong performance in this segment,” he added. 


Expenditure on Game Participation

In the 2018 financial year, both the AFL and NRL invested significantly in promoting female participation at games, and the NRL launched a new participation strategy.

“Financial distributions to community facilities increased significantly for the AFL in the past financial year, as they sought to boost participation at a grassroots level. Increased expenditure was also directed to marketing in NSW and QLD, as well as promoting female participation and the women’s code,” said Mr Wu.

“In contrast, the NRL’s spending on development stagnated as they revised and launched their new participation strategy in 2018. Game participation expansion spending declined for the NRL from the previous year, with the exception of women’s rugby league development,” he added. 



According to IBISWorld, both the AFL and NRL performed strongly in their commercial operations in 2018, renewing their partnerships with key sponsors ahead of the 2019 season.

“The AFL signed a new five-year deal with Virgin Australia in September 2018 and a new four-year deal with AccorHotels in November 2018. With that being said, the clubs also really upped the ante with securing financial support in 2018. Even Carlton Football Club, which finished at the bottom of the ladder in the home and away season, improved its sponsorship arrangements,” said Mr Wu.

The NRL also recorded progress in its corporate partnerships, which contributed significantly to the league’s non-broadcast revenue growth.

“The new broadcast rights contract helped the NRL renew its major partners, while also forging new partnerships with several other well-known brands like Fitness First, Chemist Warehouse and Rebel Sport.”

However, Mr Wu warns that the recent flurry of scandals among top NRL clubs is expected to take its toll on the league over the next year.

“NRL clubs seeking to attract new partners will find it difficult after the negative publicity the code has received as of late. We have seen this kind of thing affect the sports world before, most notably for Cricket Australia after the ball-tampering scandal, which led to the loss of Magellan Financial Group as a major sponsor,” said Mr Wu.


IBISWorld Industry Reports mentioned in this release:

Australian Football League

Australian Rugby League Commission Limited

Sports in Australia

Sports Administrative Services in Australia


For more information, to obtain industry reports or to speak with an analyst, please contact:

Kim Do

Strategic Media Advisor – IBISWorld Pty Ltd
Tel: (03) 9906 3641 Mobile: 0422 773 995