NRL Game-changers? The 2017 hits and misses

With the 2017 NRL season about to draw to an end, Michael Chammas looks back over the back issues and changes in the game to determine what worked and what failed.

Television ratings

The major change to the 2017 schedule was based around a desire to increase television ratings in the struggling Monday night time slot.

The NRL and Fox Sports agreed to scrap Monday night footy and in turn replace it with a 6pm Friday night game.

The theory was that if Fox Sports were able to grab viewers for the first Friday night game, those same viewers wouldn't switch over to Channel Nine for the 8pm game available on free-to-air.

The theory was right, with Fox Sports eating into Nine's share of the 8pm time slot - however it suffered when comparing the Friday 6pm ratings (222,996 average) with the previous years Monday night ratings (279,111 average).

Crowds

While the NRL's decision to schedule a Friday 6pm game most weeks hasn't had the desired effect for television ratings, it appears the fans prefer the timeslot for attending matches ahead of the Monday night fixture it replaced.

In 2016, the average Monday night crowd was 10,746. The NRL scrapped the time slot this year in favour of Friday twilight football, averaging 11,712 fans to each game.

One of the biggest concerns for the game is how to grow attendance figures in a crowded market that has long been the hardest city in the country to crack.

Chief executive Todd Greenberg has been on record bemoaning the drawbacks of the city's stadium network, and how vital the strategy for stadiums being deliberated by the state government will be in determining the level of attendance at NRL games in the future.

The average NRL crowd has dropped from 15,242 in 2016 to 14,997 during the regular season. The average Sydney NRL crowd has also dropped from 13,749 to 13,110. Sydney suburban ground average attendance has also experienced a drop in 2017.

The judiciary

At the start of the season, the NRL totally restructured the system surrounding the match review committee with two intentions.

The first was to simplify a complicated system - removing certain charge types and also restricting the grading to three different types of severity.

The second was implementing a system that ensured players didn't miss games for minor infringements.

The fans and players didn't want a repeat of last year, when Wade Graham was rubbed out of an Origin game for a minor high tackle or Tyson Frizell missing a week because of innocuous contact with a referee.

The result of the overhaul saw the number of charges drop from 142 in 2016 to 89 this year. That resulted in 34 fewer matches missed through suspension for players in 2017. There were also 29 players fined for minor indiscretions.

The bunker

One of the most common criticisms of the bunker is that it gets used far too often. That it ruins the flow of the game.

The game has invested millions of dollars into technology to get faster, more accurate decisions, which is why scrutiny of the bunker is relentless. There was a clear directive in 2017 for on-field referees to back their decisions.

Last year 41 per cent of all try attempts were sent upstairs, which equates to around 3.53 referrals per game. In 2017, only 39 per cent of try attempts were referred to the video officials.

As of week two of the finals series, referees averaged 3.15 referrals per game - an 11 per cent drop on last year.

As far as the length of time taken to reach decisions, the game is experiencing 17 per cent quicker decisions.

NRL results

In 2016 the average decision time was 64 seconds, dropping to 53 seconds in 2017.

The percentage of on-field decisions overturned by the bunker has remained almost identical from last year.

"Clearly the statistics show that the bunker has been quicker in 2017, and there have been fewer referrals by the on-field officials," NRL head of football Brian Canavan says. Also, "the bunker has allowed for increased transparency".

Penalties

The most frustrating penalty trend in the game has to be the number of deliberate penalties teams give away defending their own tryline in an attempt to organise their defensive line.

Unfortunately for the NRL, that trend isn't showing signs of slowing down.

Only 14.6 per cent of all penalties in 2016 were given inside the 10 metre attacking zone. That's gone up to 16.3 per cent this year.

The referees have tried to crack down on the tactic, and have been using the sin bin far more than they were last year.

In fact 43 players have been sent to the bin this year, a 253 per cent increase from 2016 (17 sin bins).

The NRL is tinkering with the idea of a five-minute sin bin to bring an end to a growing trend in the game.

"There have been 43 sin bins so far in 2017, and a number of them have occurred in the 10-metre zone," Canavan said.

"If there is a desire by the Competition Committee and the head coaches to look at any trends in the on-field game, it will be reviewed in due course."

Results

The NRL this year experienced the lowest average margin in more than a decade (13 points per game).

While there were fewer games decided by four points or less, there weren't as many blowouts (20+ points margin) as last year.

The story NRL Game-changers? The 2017 hits and misses first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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