Should the NRL shorten the season for player welfare?

The length of the NRL season is a common talking point among fans and experts alike, some believe it’s too long and other see it as being too short.

Personally, I think the most fair structure to all clubs is one where each team plays each other home and away; this reduces the element of luck that can benefit certain clubs in the draw. Having each team play twice allows for all teams to be given a neutral fixture list that favours no one team in particular. For example, the Bulldogs this year have only been drawn against last seasons top four once each; comparatively the Broncos have to play each of the Storm, Raiders, Sharks and Cowboys twice each. So should a team be given a favourable draw, it gives them an advantage over those whose fixtures aren’t as advantageous. The argument against this system is that it would add six weeks to an already long season, assuming that all teams still get two byes in the middle part of the season.

Whilst reducing the length of the season would be of greater benefit to player health and wellbeing, it would also deprive fans of games and reduce ticket revenue for clubs. Assuming a ticket costs a mean of $20, and clubs usually get 8,000-15,000 people at home games; clubs would be missing out on serious revenue should the NRL reduce the amount of games in the schedule. As a fan of the game I can only attest to needing more league in my life, the 6 months I have to wait after the grand final for more NRL is torture enough; increasing that wait would frustrate me as I’m sure it would other fans too.

The reason why this is a talking point at the moment is because of the hectic Origin schedule the game has just passed through. The fatigue that players accrue throughout the season only progresses further at a time like this; Origin players do their best to back up and play after a very short turnaround and players who aren’t selected generally step up in place of their absent teammates to assume bigger roles.

Another way to manage the schedule for the league would be to split it up into ‘zones’, they do this in the NBA; an Eastern and Western conference. If the NRL was split into two zones compiling eight teams, you would end up with a twenty-two game regular season. Teams would play each team in their zone twice and teams from outside once; since the NRL is mainly based in Sydney it would be hard to split the sixteen geographically so the split would most likely be based off finishes in the previous year’s ladder.

A system where fixtures are decided by past results would hinder the ability to facilitate rivalries that need two fixtures per season, games like Souths-Roosters, Manly-Melbourne etc. It also would affect traditional games like Good Friday and Anzac Day, unless the teams involved were able to finish the previous season in positions that are conducive to the games going ahead.

The Verdict

Should the NRL shorten the season for player welfare? In a word, no. Ideally Origin should be moved out of the middle of the regular season, and should be held after the finals series has concluded.

A ‘zone’ system would make scheduling the season easier for teams, and would create a fairer environment but would really hinder the NRL’s ability to generate excitement around rivalries.

A 30 game season, spanning 32 weeks is far too long; considering that the finals would then stretch well into November.

I think keeping the length of the season where it is, is a good way to move forward; at least until it presents a problem.