St George Illawarra chief operating officer Michael McDonald believes NRL clubs could soon surpass the highly successful membership models of their AFL rivals, as the code looks to combat drops in leagues club funding through alternative means.
The Dragons, whose coffers are lined with annual contributions from both the St George Leagues and Illawarra Steelers clubs, are at the coalface of change in how they balance their sheets.
The joint venture is representative of most NRL entities, which face an uphill battle securing stable funding from their traditional stakeholders because of hardened trading conditions and tougher government legislation.
McDonald said the Dragons had placed renewed importance on acquiring and retaining football club members so they were less reliant on leagues club funding.
"It's vital. You look at the ARL commission's strategic plan, they've identified membership growth as a key strategic outcome for the game. That's all about driving the sustainability of clubs," McDonald said.
"It's no secret that the licensed club industry is under pressure and our traditional stakeholders of licensed clubs need to look at investment of their own business models.
"That means that clubs are needing to look at driving their own revenue programs. Certainly in a membership sense, if you look at where we've come from over the last five years in particular there's been some strong growth there."
The Dragons co-ordinate one of the most successful member drives in the competition, along with the Rabbitohs, Broncos and Knights.
St George Illawarra was the first club to break the 20,000-member milestone, and has already recruited 13,000 for next season.
While current figures pale against those of AFL superpower Collingwood (which reached 80,000 members in 2012), McDonald argued the NRL model was still in its infancy.
"Like onfield, it's an increasingly competitive environment," McDonald said.
"There's no less tribal support for NRL clubs than there are for AFL clubs, really. We've got a large support base and a lot of loyalty and passion for our brand.
"Membership culture is relatively new in the NRL, compared to the AFL. They've been doing it for a lot longer. I can certainly see it continue to develop to larger numbers than we have now, rivalling AFL clubs in the future."
But McDonald stressed there would always be a place for leagues club funding.
His sentiments were echoed by Clubs NSW and Illawarra Steelers chairman Peter Newell.
"It's the charter of these leagues clubs and their reason for being - the propagation of the game of rugby league," Newell said.
In addition to leagues club funding, NRL clubs currently survive on funding from the ARL Commission, corporate partnerships, membership and match ticketing, merchandise, retail and licensing programs.
These incomes combined help fund football operations, facilities, logistical needs and office staff.