Although last year's Rugby League World Cup was a disaster for New Zealand fans following the Kiwis' quarter-final exit, many regarded the tournament as a success, particularly for minnow nations such as Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga.

The latter two teams qualified for the semi-finals, showing signs of increased competitiveness among tier two sides, leading onlookers to believe that the tournament as a whole was expanding and improving in terms of spectacle value.

But as Ian Cameron of RugbyPass uncovered, the tournament's spectacle value is anything but increasing, and the gap in terms of attendance figures between the Rugby League World Cup and rugby union's equivalent is widening.

While Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Tonga impressed with their overachievement at last year's event, increased competitiveness must be a high priority within international rugby league.


Reigning champions Australia have dominated the competition since its inception in 1954, winning 11 of the past 14 titles, while the remaining four championships have been shared between Great Britain and New Zealand.

Comparatively, in the Rugby World Cup's previous eight tournaments since 1987, four nations - New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and England - have shared the crown of world champions, while France have competed in three finals.

This displays the superior diversity and competiton among teams evident within union's blue ribbon event when compared to league, and this is reflected in attendance figures at the most recent World Cups in both codes.

373,461 fans attended matches at the Rugby League World Cup across Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea in 2017, culminating in an average crowd of 13,338 from its 28 games.

That is an alarming 18 per cent drop off from the previous edition of the tournament, staged in England and Wales four years earlier, which set an average attendance of 16,374.

Meanwhile, the 2015 Rugby World Cup, also staged in England and Wales, saw nearly 2.5 million ticket holders walk through the gates of the 48 games.

The All blacks celebrate their 2015 Rugby World Cup victory at Twickenham. Photo / Getty Images.
The All blacks celebrate their 2015 Rugby World Cup victory at Twickenham. Photo / Getty Images.

Despite the fact that tickets to rugby union's pinnacle tournament was the most expensively ticketed large-scale sporting event of all-time, the 2015 spectacle set an average attendance of 51,621 - more than three times that of the League World Cup last year.

While many will point to the fact the Rugby World Cup used stadiums of a much higher capacity than what was used at the Rugby League World Cup, the attendance figures at league's global showpiece event could have been much higher had they actually filled the venues.

By tournament's end, only 49.75 per cent of stadium capacity was filled throughout RLWC 2017, meaning the 373,461 that attended the Cup's 28 games could have doubled.

The match that perhaps best exemplified this lack of attendance was England's clash against Lebanon at the 44,000-capacity Allianz Stadium, where only 10,237 turned up to watch.

Once again, RWC 2015 was streaks ahead of their rugby league counterparts, filling 95 per cent of their stadiums across the tournament's 48 matches.

Australian fans were the main contributors to the huge lack of seat-filling last year, with an average attendance of just 11,436 over the course of 18 matches.

New Zealand were slightly better, managing an average of 17,601, while Papua New Guinea sold out both of the matches it hosted, albeit in the small 14,800-capacity Oil Search National Football Stadium in Port Moresby.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate union's dominance over league in terms of attendance figures would be to compare union's least attended World Cup - the inaugural 1987 event, co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia - with league's most attended tournament, the 2013 edition in the United Kingdom.

Although league's record-breaking tournament five years ago pulled in 458,483 attendees, union's least profitable tournament still topped that figure, with 604,500 punters filling stadiums across Australiasia more than three decades ago.

So while the minnows of international rugby league certainly impressed on the global stage last year, the sport as a whole still has a long way to go if it is to foot it with the sort of numbers that their rugby union equivalent is posting at its pinnacle events.

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