Dwindling crowd attendances are never a good omen in any sport or competition. The bad news is that itâs what we are facing in Super Rugby, particularly in Australia and New Zealand.
nickoldschool. The Roar
From averaging 25,000 in 2004-05, we are now down to 19-20,000 in Australia alone.
A âbad yearâ can always happen, but when for the fifth year in a row you struggle to bring 20,000 bums on the terraces, you know youâre in trouble and reversing the trend will take something (or someone) special.
Why is it happening? Why are we deserting our rugby stadiums? How low can numbers go without affecting Super Rugbyâs very own survival?
Results, quality on the field, costs, TV, big-name drawing cards, comfort, PRâŠ reasons which bring us, or not, to the stadium are endless. Yet, the correlation between attendances and results is obvious and unquestionable: although each team has a core fan base who will attend no matter what, a substantial number of fans will come only if you are offering quality and, if possible, getting results on the pitch.
Look at Western Forceâs figures: 2006, first year of Super Rugby, 28,300 Aussies, Kiwis and South African expats pack Subiaco Oval at every game to watch their new team take on âtheir other teamâ.
Exciting rugby despite many losses, great atmosphereâŠ in other words, a success. Except on the pitch. âFair enough, we are new in the comp, wait and see!â In 2007, 27,500 spectators on average, nice one â still plenty of tries and excitement, butâŠâhang on a sec, do I really want to pay 50 bucks to watch my team get hammered?â
Same story in 2008, â09, â10, â11, except that only 16,000 people paid a ticket last year. Thatâs a 43 percent decline between 2006 and 2011. Ouch!
No pointing fingers. Itâs the same story everywhere in Oz. The 30,000 mark used to be an âokay crowdâ at Sydneyâs SFS (then Aussie Stadium) a few years ago, something you expected when SA franchises or Highlanders, Canes or Chiefs (no offense) were visiting. Bring on the Brumbies, Reds or even Crusaders or Blues and you would get close to a packed house. Those days are gone.
ARU boss John O’Neill warns the nation’s five Super Rugby franchises to lift their game in attracting spectators or risk losing funding.
A half empty stadium is the norm at the SFS these days. If you are unlucky enough to have some rain on the same weekend the Lions or Cheetahs are in town, numbers will go down to 15,000 max.
For obvious reasons, the Reds had a good year in 2011 with a few 40,000-plus crowds, but there is no certainty 2012 will get the same numbers. In Melbourne, Rebelsâ managers are anxious to see if OâConnor and Beale will bring a few extra bums at home games.
Averaging 18,000 for their first year was good but not spectacular, either. They will need a few early wins to pass the 20,000 mark on a regular basis and put a smile on their sponsorsâ faces and say âwe told you soâ.
Figures werenât any better in New Zealand last year (averaging roughly 13,000 during the regular season, thatâs 10 to 12 percent down) and it will be interesting to see if people come back en masse now that the sword of Damocles that was hanging over their head is gone (yes, they won the RWC).
Yet, itâs hard to be optimistic as Crusaders wonât draw big numbers at their home games again this year. Highlanders and Chiefs have limited potential (supporter numbers wonât surpass the total population) and the Hurricanes could have a tough one on the field without Hore, Nonu and Weepu.
The Blues can probably be slightly more optimistic as they have the population and venue to attract a 30,000-plus crowd at every game if they get things right on the pitch. And on paper, they have the players to do so this year.
South Africa traditionally boasts higher figures but their three most successful franchises (Bulls, Sharks and Stormers) lost some spectators last year â the Bulls and Sharks falling under the 30,000 mark. Paradoxically, the big gainers in 2011 were the Cheetahs and Lions who rose from 15,000 to nearly 20,000.
With the likes of Botha, Matfield, Du Preez etc gone from SA rugby, they now have the opportunity to get some success on the pitch and attract supporters out of their core fanbase, which means extra money that can be used to retain and develop young talent as playersâ exodus is becoming the number one issue in SA rugby, but thatâs another issue.
So whatâs in store for 2012? Will the trend persist and numbers continue to go down? Are we going to see Super Rugby games in Australia attracting less than 10,000 spectators?
We hope not as it would eventually mean the end of Super Rugby as we know it â a competition with some of the best players on the paddock.