Rugby Australia heralds 'record-breaking' Super Rugby AU season

Rugby Australia has declared the regular season of Super Rugby AU a runaway success, revealing its domestic television numbers are up "an average 144 percent" for the regular season from last year's tournament.

RA on Monday unveiled the figures, seemingly justifying the switch to free-to-air television with Nine Entertainment Co. as part of a wider deal with Stan Sport, who screen all the Super Rugby AU games, as opposed to just the Saturday night encounter on Nine Gem.

While the numbers don't include those people watching via the streaming service, RA chief executive Andy Marinos said the 144 percent increase was part of even wider positive feeling across the game.

As well as the promising television figures, RA also pointed to a 16.5 percent increase in community player registrations this year and the 22,000-plus crowd for the Round 8 clash between the Reds and Brumbies in Brisbane -- the biggest in the competition in Australia for five years -- as other indicators of success in 2021.

"We've been thrilled with the television audience figures so far and can't wait to see it build over the next fortnight and into Harvey Norman Super Rugby Trans-Tasman," Marinos said via media release.

"I want to thank [Nine chief executive] Mike Sneesby and [Nine head of sport] Brent Williams as well as the rest of the team at Nine and Stan for their enthusiasm and passion for Harvey Norman Super Rugby AU. If the regular season was anything to go by, we are in for a spectacular finals series."

Pushed for clarification of the figures, an RA spokesperson told ESPN the 144 percent increase was calculated by comparing the average of the total match audiences from the two games broadcast on Fox Sports each week in 2020, compared with average of the one game beamed out each week on Nine Gem this season.

However, the Force's shock victory over the Reds on Friday night, which rendered Saturday night's game between the Rebels and winless Waratahs irrelevant, saw Nine Gem suffer its worst result of the season across metro audiences with just 54,000 people tuning in.

While the exact Stan Sport figures remain unknown, sources recently told ESPN they were in the vicinity of 50,000 subscriptions, though the fact that the service's 30-day free trial was extended suggests they may not have hit the targets originally forecast.

RA was also unable to secure a rights deal into the United Kingdom and Europe with Super Rugby AU games eventually streamed for free via the World Rugby website.

Despite some technical difficulties at times, the general public feedback for Stan's coverage has however largely been positive with supporters praising both the presentation and analysis from a team that includes former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika.

While the Force remain the feel good story of the season, particularly after their dramatic comeback win over the Reds, they remain outsiders to upset the Brumbies and reach the final a week later.

And a third Reds-Brumbies contest for the season will be exactly what Nine and Stan Sport executives are sweating on, with the teams having already played out two nail-biters during the regular season. While they won't express it publicly, it will also be what RA administrators are after.

"Despite the snap lockdown, Perth was absolutely buzzing on Friday night after the Western Force's victory over the Reds, and they will be heading to Canberra full of momentum and confidence against the defending champions," Marinos continued.

"The increased exposure has also directly benefited our community game with participation up 16.4% from the same time in 2019, and the seasons are only just beginning around the country.

"The coverage has also been fantastic for our sponsors and attracted new interest from potential partners as well, not just for Rugby Australia but the Australia Super Rugby sides and clubs as well.

"And this is just the beginning. There's an action-packed six weeks of Harvey Norman Super Rugby Trans-Tasman just around the corner with kick-off on 14 May before the Wallabies Test season."

RA will also be hoping the five Australian franchises closely compete with their New Zealand counterparts during the six-week crossover series.

RA Director of Rugby Scott Johnson recently boldly declared he wanted two Australian sides in the final of the competition where the two highest placed teams after the five weeks of cross-border play will contest the decider, no matter which side of the Tasman they are from.

While the lack of official confirmation is a concern, RA sources also remain confident the Wallabies' series against France will proceed as planned despite ongoing issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

ESPN understands Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney will host the three Tests with Jul. 10, 17 and 24 the likely dates respectively.