Andrew Abdo is delighted at the latest figures that show the NRL is busting the long-held myth that the AFL is more tribal.

Collingwood fans may scoff, but NRL teams boast significantly more followers than their AFL counterparts.

Remarkably, rugby league teams dominate the top rankings of total social media followers across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The Brisbane Broncos, Melbourne Storm, New Zealand Warriors and South Sydney Rabbitohs all have a massive online presence, dwarfing some of their cross-code rivals as the NRL challenges the long-held view that AFL fans are the most tribal in Australian sport.

The Broncos alone have amassed more followers than the AFL’s Brisbane Lions, St Kilda FC and North Melbourne Kangaroos combined, accumulating over one million total followers. This hasn’t happened by accident, it’s a natural consequence of being Australia’s first club to employ a full-time social media expert to curate their accounts.

Across the last seven years, the biggest improvers were the North Queensland Cowboys (up 12 rankings). Leading the team which has perhaps the greatest potential to break into the top five clubs of any code, Cowboys CEO Jeff Reibel explains his club’s online success.

“In the past seven years we’ve experienced the heights of success with a maiden premiership and also found ourselves in the bottom four on the ladder,” Reibel told Wide World of Sports.

“Our online presence is a reflection of the fundamental North Queensland values that define us and drive us and that clearly resonates with people not just within our geographical footprint but throughout the whole of Australia.

“It is also the range and diversity of our digital platform’s content – working with our commercial partners, our team remains on the cutting edge of this evolving space ensuring that we are delivering engaging, meaningful and relevant content.”

Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Valentine Holmes of the Cowboys embrace after winning the round 17 NRL match between the North Queensland Cowboys and the St George Illawarra Dragon

Others clubs to have significant growth were the Western Bulldogs (up 11 spots), Canberra Raiders (up 11), Melbourne City FC (up nine) and the Richmond Tigers (up seven), with finals appearances inevitably resulting in a spike. Unsurprisingly, following their grand final appearance in 2020, the Penrith Panthers advanced nine rankings in the last year alone.

In contrast, the teams who fell the most rankings in seven years were the Manly Sea Eagles (down 12 places), Gold Coast Titans (also down 12), Gold Coast Suns (down 11), Queensland Reds (down 10) and Canterbury Bulldogs (down eight).

The most alarming fall however is the AFL’s supposed powerhouse team; the Collingwood Magpies, who back in 2013 had more social media followers than any other club. Eight years on, and their online ranking has dropped to fifth with 250,000 less followers than the Brisbane Broncos.

Collingwood and Essendon players line up at the start of an Anzac Day match.

Despite having two fewer teams, NRL clubs still hold more cumulative followers than the AFL (8.71 million versus 8.56 million).

The NRL has experienced a recent spike in social media growth. Consider its year-on-year growth rate of 6.75 per cent, which is significantly greater than the AFL’s growth of 5.38 per cent. This coincided with the appointment of the commercially minded CEO Andrew Abdo.

After contacting Abdo and providing him with the full set of data, he expressed his delight at the efforts of NRL clubs, before explaining how the NRL’s own channels have managed to attract so many online followers.

“We have a passionate and engaged fan base,” Abdo told Wide World of Sports.

“The numbers highlight the popularity of our sport right around Australia, particularly with a new generation of sports fans.

“Our partnership with social media platforms has been invaluable for the game, enabling us to extend our reach and product offering across multiple social media platforms that reach billions of people every day.

“We can then showcase the quality of our entertainment experience, like the speed, intensity and agility of our players – because at the end of the day this is what wins us fans.”

NRL CEO Andrew Abdo

Abdo adds that growing an online following for the NRL is just as important as growing other traditional measures of fan engagement such as memberships and ratings.

“Social media is literally in the palm of everyone’s hand. Growing an engaged online following is important to the game and a major driver for all our traditional measures – wherever our fans are, we want to be there too, engaging them in our sport,” Abdo said.

“Through our online channels we have a direct dialogue with our fans, we learn more about them and can speak to them in relevant ways about when and where to watch, attend a game or buy a club membership.

“Social Media in particular, and partners like Facebook, allow us to extend our reach to win new fans, younger audiences and potential new fans around the globe.”

So which code is the most dominant? And what is Australia’s most popular team?

Traditional measures such as memberships and crowd averages undoubtedly show the AFL as the nation’s favourite. But technology has changed the way we consume sport, meaning streams and followers are perhaps more accurate metrics in determining the true influence, reach and brand power of Australia’s football teams.

Top 10 clubs by followers:

1. Brisbane Broncos: 1,062,252

2. Melbourne Storm: 894,326

3. Warriors: 799,744

4. South Sydney Rabbitohs: 781,187

5. Collingwood Football Club: 756,220

6. Essendon Football Club: 682,638

7. Richmond Football Club: 659,195

8. Hawthorn Football Club: 623,176

9. West Coast Eagles: 619,982

10. Carlton Football Club: 594,541

Disclaimer: The NRL Economist (Ramy Haidar) is currently employed by NRL club the Manly Sea Eagles as their Innovation Consultant. You can follow him on Twitter @ramy_haidar

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