Four factors which could determine who wins the NRL vs AFL showdown in 2013

With the NRL season kicking off this week and the AFL getting into gear in a couple of weeks’ time, this year shapes up as a huge one for Australia’s biggest rival sporting codes.

With billion-dollar plus television rights agreements under their belts, the NRL and AFL’s management will be expected to up the ante when it comes to putting on the “greatest show” on Australia’s domestic sporting landscape.

So which are the biggest factors that could determine who comes out on top? Here are my top four:

1. Leadership

In a year which has seen a couple of rounds of CEO-musical chairs, almost all of the Australian sporting codes have seen a change at the top including the ARU, FFA, and NRL.

The NRL’s appointment of David Smith is perhaps the most controversial, given his lack of experience in sports business and the gaffes which have accompanied his inauguration, including the inability to name reigning premiers Melbourne Storm, Queensland and Kangaroos skipper Cameron Smith, and mixing up the names of Tigers captain Benji Marshall and fallen Dally M Player of the Year winner Ben Barba.

Regardless, the biggest question facing the appointment of Smith is whether he can convert a successful career in finance as chief executive of Lloyds International, where he managed over $50 billion worth of assets, to a successful career in sports administration leading the so-called “blue collar” code.

On the flipside, Andrew Demetriou has been at the helm since 2003, and with his expansion strategy implemented and war chest bursting at the seams, many will be looking at what is next for the business-minded, AFL-blooded supremo.

2. Drugs

Undoubtedly, the doping cloud hanging over both codes is perhaps the biggest issue to face sport in this country in some years. With the clouds threatening to burst at any time, the general public, and not only sports fans, will be looking at how sport reacts to this social issue.

As recently as this week, betting markets on NRL club Cronulla Sharks were suspended with reports that up to 14 current players implicated in ASADA’s anti-doping investigation could be suspended.

Similarly there are still some big question marks over a number of AFL clubs, in particular the Essendon Bombers.

This is highlighted by the AFL’s controversial three strikes policy which has been in effect for some years, where players are only “ousted” on their third positive result to illicit drugs. Up until recently there was even a loophole that allows players to self-report, ensuring they escape testing and a positive strike.

Apart from the public backlash, possible cuts in funding, reduction in junior player numbers and waning membership, a warning has also been sounded of lawsuits from parents of young players who strayed into drug use because of clubs and the governing body failing in their duty of care.

3. Marketing

Both the NRL and AFL kicked off their television advertising campaigns last week, taking quite a different stance (be sure to check out both the NRL and AFL TV ads and a breakdown on Sports Business Insider by sports branding expert Anthony Costa).

The NRL ad, featuring pop star Jessica Mauboy, clearly goes for a community, youth, and female feel, bringing back the feel of the hugely successful Simply The Best Tina Turner campaign in the early 1990s.

The AFL ad plays on the sport’s uniquely Australian nature, focusing on physicality and taking a much more abrasive stance, using an AC/DC soundtrack to cut through the white noise and deliver a powerful message to fans.

This sets the scene for 2013 – will the NRL deliver on its promise to be community and female-friendly? Will the AFL leverage its unprecedented live coverage and presence across free-to-air, pay and digital mediums to become the undisputed ‘Australian Game’?

It’s game on as to whose approach will prove more relevant, perhaps not as a means to attract current fans of the respective codes, but probably more importantly to attract new and undersubscribed segments.

4. Expansion

The first thing that always comes up when discussing “what next” for both the NRL and AFL is the topic of expansion.

On one hand, we have the AFL, which has expanded into western Sydney and the Gold Coast over the last two years. They will be looking to build on their conservative start, using both teams as a “loss leader” for the better part of a decade, in order to make inroads into two of the NRL’s heartlands.

In 2013 – especially as the power of marketing tools such as Israel Folau and Karmichael Hunt has waned (or disappeared all together!) – the AFL will look for the teams to start holding their own in terms of finances, membership and results on the field.

On the other hand, the NRL has been threatening to expand for a number of years now.

For the last four or five years Western Australia has put its hand up, and so too has the Central Coast (NSW). We have also seen two competing bids for a second team in Brisbane, another team looking to set up shop in the south-east corridor of Queensland, and a bid for a second NZ-based team.

Armed with their biggest cash injection for quite some time, solidarity in the form of the establishment of the Australian Rugby League Commission and an obvious commitment from bids who have put up with disappointment time and time again, the NRL must now answer the yes/no question around expansion, or risk losing investors, and ground, in the aim to build relevance on a national scale.

Nic Ferraro is the founder and managing director of the Sports Business Insider website – the leading, independent online source of news, analysis, opinion and information on events on the business side of sport. Connect with him on Twitter @NicolaFerraro.

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