The sport of rugby league was first established in Australia way back in 1907, when a group of rugby union players from New South Wales who were unhappy about players not being paid broke away and created their own form of the game. This new format had already been played elsewhere around the globe, notably in both the UK and New Zealand, but it wasn’t until April 1908 that the first official rugby league game in Australia took place.
The development of Rugby League in Australia
Rugby league grew in popularity fairly rapidly in the country, with a number of the top national players having moved across from rugby union to the new format of the game. 1910, in particular, was a year of significant development, with a huge increase in attendances helping to stabilise the game from a financial perspective and helping it to continue to prosper over the coming decades.
Over the course of the next 50 years the sport continued to develop in Australia on an international scale, with the country hosting the Rugby League World Cup for the first time in 1957. But it wasn’t just the international side that was catching the eye of the public; so too was the domestic league, which in 1965 attracted a record-breaking 78,056 fans to the Grand Final.
The league was thriving, though the kind of competitive parity we see in today’s competition was far less evident. Between 1908 and 1975, either the Rabbitohs or the Roosters won the Premiership on 31 occasions, while the Dragons won 11 times in a row between 1956 and 1966. Nonetheless, business was booming, but that success brought with it plenty of competition for control in the front offices, and that all came to a head in 1997.
How was the NRL Invented?
In 1997, two top-tier leagues ran simultaneously: the Rupert Murdoch-backed Super League, which drew across a number of clubs from the existing Australian Rugby League; and the Australian Rugby League itself, which was run by Kerry Packer and Optus Vision. Clearly, this was not a sustainable model, and fortunately it only lasted one year, after which the two parties reached a peace agreement, joined together and formed the NRL.
Since that time, the NRL has continued to develop, and in recent years has seen a particularly significant jump in popularity – at least from a membership perspective. While crowds have remained stable over the past 15 years, fans have shown much more willingness to financially support their clubs, and the vast majority of teams have seen huge growth in membership in the past ten years or so. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of NRL 2021 Premiership contender the Parramatta Eels, who have nearly tripled their membership tally in the last nine years, while in 2016 every club had at least 10,000 members for the first time in NRL history, and with the exception of the Gold Coast Titans those numbers have continued to be consolidated since.
Rugby League has a long and storied history in Australia, but in reality the NRL in the form that it currently exists is still in its relative infancy. Still less than a quarter of a century out from one of the most controversial seasons in Australian sport, a year which threatened the future of professional rugby league in the country, the NRL is now a far more stable organisation than the administration which preceded it in the latter stages of last century. Memberships are on the rise while many feel that on-field, the game itself is as exciting as it has ever been. No doubt it will continue to evolve over the coming years, but for the time being, the NRL is in a pretty good place.