Crowds absent but AFL ratings rocket

Scott Bailey and Oliver Caffrey

The AFL's big loss in ground revenue has turned into a big win for television, with the league recording its highest ratings for a season opener in four years.

More than 1.1 million people in the capital cities and and on Pay TV tuned in for the first game behind closed doors, as Richmond beat Carlton at the MCG.

But the same curiosity did not extend to the empty ANZ Stadium for the NRL, with audience numbers down by more than 100,000 on last Thursday night's season opener across the same markets.

In fairness to the rugby league, the clash between Canterbury and North Queensland involved an out-of-Sydney team with regional markets also not yet counted.

But regardless, the night was a big win for the AFL after they only confirmed on Wednesday afternoon the competition would start on time.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic and a lack of atmosphere, the Tigers' 24-point victory over the Blues saw a metro audience of 798,000 tune in, up eight per cent from 739,000 in 2019.

In Melbourne, the free-to-air ratings were 542,000, with Perth the next best with 110,000.

Up to 90,000 people usually pack out the MCG to watch the traditional rivals kick off the season, but fans had to tune in from home instead.

It marked the biggest television audience for the traditional season opener since 2016.

Meanwhile 337,000 tuned into the NRL in the capital cities on the Nine Network, well down on the 432,000 from round one between Parramatta and Canterbury.

There was also a drop of 16,000 on Fox League, down to 226,000.

However season openers generally pull in bigger ratings for the NRL, while Parramatta are also a far bigger crowd-pulling team in metro areas than North Queensland.

The combined figures of 658,000 across both networks also made for a 34 per cent rise from when the Bulldogs and Cowboys met on a Thursday night late last season.