PRIME TIME: Newcastle KnightsTHE Newcastle Knights will enjoy prime-time exposure from the outset next season after being allocated Channel 9 free-to-air coverage for four of their first five games.

Following their blockbuster season-opening clash against St George Illawarra at Ausgrid Stadium on Thursday night, March 1, Newcastle play Cronulla (away) on Sunday, March 11, Brisbane (home) on Friday, March 16, Canterbury (away) on Sunday, March 25, and Melbourne (away) on Friday, March 30.

Only the Cronulla game will not be broadcast on free-to-air television.

The clashes with the Dragons, Brisbane and Melbourne have been given match-of-the-round status, which shows the interest in Newcastle’s new-look squad under master coach Wayne Bennett.

As a comparison, Newcastle had one Friday night home game last season – their do-or-die showdown with South Sydney in the final round – and two in 2010.

Yet judging by the faith invested in them by Channel 9 and the NRL, the once-friendless Knights are suddenly the hottest ticket in town.

‘‘It’s particularly exciting getting four out of the first five games on free-to-air,’’ Knights chief executive Matthew Gidley said yesterday.

‘‘Whilst we’re really ambitious for the future, I think this is a clear indication.

‘‘From the broader area outside the Newcastle region – there is some real excitement about what we’re trying to achieve up here.

‘‘The NRL has been fantastic in assisting us, and Channel 9 are obviously right behind that as well.’’

NRL officials, who released yesterday the draw for the first five weeks, will wait until towards the end of that block of games to schedule the second phase of next season.

If Newcastle start the year strongly, there is no reason why they will not continue to feature on Friday nights.

‘‘The form of the team and where they’re sitting on the ladder obviously comes into consideration,’’ Gidley said.

‘‘But hopefully our members get behind us for those games in round one and round three – which are huge home games for us – and assist us in getting some winning performances.

‘‘That will hold us in good stead when the next batch of games are released by Channel 9.’’

Knights management are already contemplating the unprecedented prospect of four consecutive rugby league crowds at Ausgrid Stadium exceeding 30,000.

The last-round match against the Rabbitohs drew 30,729, which was surpassed a month later by 32,890 who witnessed Darren Lockyer’s farewell Test match on Australian soil in the 42-6 thrashing of New Zealand.

Next year’s season-opener, which will pit Bennett against his former club, should ensure another full house.

Two weeks later, Newcastle will play host to Brisbane, who since 1988 have traditionally been one of the biggest drawcards to visit Turton Road.