Canterbury’s opponents in the NRL may be crossing their fingers that the Bulldogs remain dormant, wary of the potential power they could wield in the league. The distressing statistics that follow certainly underline the validity of their fears.
In the past decade, the Bulldogs have descended into chaos. Their last entry into the finals dates back to 2017, they’ve snagged the wooden spoon during this stretch, and their best finish has been a lowly 11th place. With only 37 wins out of 132 games, they average merely six victories per season.
Canterbury’s defensive performance this season places it amongst its all-time top three worst records since the club’s inception in 1935, a fact that coach Cameron Ciraldo is striving to improve.
Off-the-beaten-track issues have mirrored their on-ground struggles, with a revolving door of six coaches in seven years, broken talent pathways, questionable recruitments, and boardroom squabbles. They’ve had to rely heavily on sizable league club grants to stay afloat.
Despite these significant setbacks, the Bulldogs benefit from a robust fanbase maintaining their popularity. Canterbury finds themselves in 15th place this season with only seven victories to their name, but they rank second and fourth in Sydney for average home crowds (18,824) and memberships (21,571) respectively.
Playing most of their home games in the eighty-thousand seater Accor Stadium presents the Bulldogs with multiple commercial advantages not afforded to clubs utilising smaller suburban venues.
Dabbling in the digital sphere, Canterbury’s social media presence is substantial. They boast the fifth-highest follower count in the NRL across platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, with 853,394 followers, only being surpassed in Sydney by South Sydney (1,210,658). They enjoy a larger fanbase online than western Sydney rivals Parramatta (817,939) and Penrith (784,821).
However, as a consequence of their poor performance, they’ve only been featured in five free-to-air games this season, placing 14th in TV viewership. If coach Ciraldo and general manager of football Phil Gould can rectify their on-pitch woes, they have the potential to emerge as a significant force in the competition.
Despite their somewhat lacklustre season, the Sydney Roosters are benefiting from their new home, the $828 million, 45,500-seat Allianz Stadium. They boast the city’s highest average home attendance at 22,657, propelled by a memorable Round 3 match with South Sydney (36,639) and enduring Anzac Day duel against St George Illawarra (40,191). Casual jokes about their lacking fanbase aside, the Roosters racked up impressive attendance figures in 2023, ending up second only to Brisbane (33,322).
Penrith poses an interesting scenario; a potent combination of success and loyalty from a devoted but not expansive supporter base. After back-to-back premierships and three successive Grand Final appearances, Penrith leads in merchandise sales and ranks third for TV viewership.
However, winning titles hasn’t triggered a surge in support. The Panthers have a membership standing at 22,000, not significantly different from the 2019 season which saw 2,000 fewer members. Contrarily, their past year’s Grand Final rivals, Parramatta, have experienced a considerable membership increase by almost 10,000 compared to the pre-Covid 2019 period.
Penrith’s average crowd of 18,153 at their current BlueBet Stadium, a venue whose capacity is only 22,500. These figures are expected to rise once their new 30,000-seat arena is ready by 2026.
The NRL faces a stark divide between top and bottom clubs. Cronulla, for instance, struggles with an average crowd of just 10,950 due to the Shark Park’s maximum capacity of 12,000. Outdated infrastructures impact ticket sales, membership numbers, and corporate support.
Similarly, the Gold Coast Titans find themselves in a rut, with poor social media following, bottom-ranked TV ratings and memberships, and dismal merchandise sales. The numbers reflect negatively on St George Illawarra too, who wear the dubious badge of least Sydney club members and second-lowest average crowd numbers.
Once a renowned force in the game, the Dragons are now languishing at 12th in TV viewership. Manly also faces work to improve fan engagement, with just 502,000 followers across platforms, only surpassing newcomers the Dolphins. The Sea Eagles lag at 13th in memberships and 14th in average home crowds, tallying 13,214 attendees at their 18,000-capacity Brookvale Oval.
These analysis results reveal an uneven playing field, with foremost challenges faced by the nine Sydney-based clubs. However, western Sydney powers Penrith and Parramatta are shaping up strongly. New stadium developments for Penrith in 2026 and existing arrangements with CommBank and Allianzs Stadium for the Eels and Roosters respectively promise good outlooks.
The future sparks doubts about the survival and competitiveness of clubs reliant on suburban grounds against competition heavyweights like the Broncos – not just in immediate seasons but over a span of next two decades.
In conclusion, the future of NRL clubs, big and small, will likely be shaped not just by on-field performance, but by their ability to harness commercial opportunities, engage fans, and evolve their facilities to match the changing dynamics of the game.