BULLISH: Dave Smith. DISAPPOINTING crowds for the NRL’s opening round next week could test chief executive Dave Smith’s pre-season claims the game is in a period of unprecedented growth.
Nanjing Night Net

Smith said at the season launch on Wednesday that after the success of the Auckland Nines and the Sydney Roosters’ win in the World Club Challenge the game had enjoyed one of its best pre-seasons in recent memory.

Few would argue with that, but any momentum gained could stall in round one as total crowds are set to be well down on the initial 200,000 tipped across the eight games.

Despite record membership numbers, ticket sales have been sluggish. The season opener on Thursday between the Roosters and South Sydney at ANZ Stadium looks set to attract a crowd of about 30,000.

That is well short of the 50,000 initially touted and almost half the record 59,708 who attended the final-round minor premiership showdown between the bitter arch rivals last year.

It would also be down on the 35,952 fans who saw Sonny Bill Williams’s return to the NRL in the corresponding game last year, which also kicked off the new season, the biggest crowd for a stand-alone round-one match in Sydney.

Last season’s total first-round crowd figure of 158,678 was buoyed by the 31,139 who filed into Suncorp Stadium for Brisbane’s clash with Manly.

This season, Brisbane do not play at home until round two, which means 2014’s total opening-round figure could be down on last year’s.

In 2012, 149,888 fans came through the gates in round one.

But any disappointment for the NRL on crowd figures could be offset by TV ratings.

Last year’s Thursday and Friday night games averaged almost a million viewers nationwide on Channel Nine.

Williams’s return game attracted record ratings in Sydney, and officials are confident that can continue.

The announcement this week of a $50million 2013 financial-year profit has put Rugby League Central in an understandably bullish mood.

‘‘The NRL has delivered its strongest financial performance on record and set out a clear strategy for the future,’’ Smith said at the launch.

‘‘It’s been an amazing few weeks. The best pre-season in many years – one to whet the appetite of all of our members and fans. The 2014 season is going to be bigger and better than ever.’’

But Smith this week also acknowledged crowds were down about 3per cent last season, and they could remain a concern for the NRL throughout 2014.