Rugby is under threat, but not from the obvious sources we are exposed to every day.
I recently did some research on Super Rugby viewership statistics to see whether SANZAR boss, Greg Peters, was spinning the black circle or actually telling the truth when he said the competition is much better off now than it was last year. Surprisingly I soon found myself not actually giving a hoot about the numbers comparison as I was drawn to what is seemingly a much greater threat to the game we all love.
In the Republic we have debated the issue whether rugby is an elitist sport or not for decades now. It is not a topic only relevant to the Republic mind you, we have seen many papers being released in recent years claiming how the IRB’s elite nations (4 home unions, France, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia) isolate themselves from the game globally like some old boys club with other nations struggling to break into the big money spinning competitions like the 6 Nations, or Tri-Nations (now Rugby Championship). The fact that Italy had to wait almost 80 years to join the 5 Nations (they joined in 2000) and Argentina’s 3rd place finish in the 2007 Rugby World Cup finally assured them of a place amongst the Southern Hemisphere’s elite, is testament to this.
Repucom, a company that analyse and publish television audience numbers, revealed that the biggest chunk of the viewership pie in South Africa is made up by white, Afrikaans males over the age of 50. Given the history of South Africa and the current situation surrounding the Kings franchise, my attention was initially fixed on the ‘white’ and ‘Afrikaans’ part of that statistic, but the more I looked at it the more my focused shifted to the fact that the largest chunk of people watching Super Rugby was over the age of 50!
Forget for a second the challenges South Africa face in growing the game amongst different racial groups, the fact the game’s popularity is so low amongst the youth of South Africa compared to the older group of individuals should be a cause of massive alarm for the custodians of the game, after all, the future of union is dependent on its popularity amongst those who will be charged to look after it in the very near future!
If you are interested in just how wide this gap is consider the following;
• 40% of the viewership audience is over the age of 50
• If you add the age group of between 35-49 (28%), you get a total figure of 68%
• In comparison, the total percentage for viewers between the ages of 15 to 34 is a mere 23%
Some might argue that the fact that rugby in South Africa is largely broadcasted through pay television channel, SuperSport, it is quite understandable why the older, more professional group of individuals (who have more money) will make up the larger chunk of the viewing audience, but South Africa is not unique in this regard where pay-television or pay-per-view broadcasts dominate premier sporting events.
Another important fact to consider is that the folks that pump money into the game, corporates, sponsors and advertisers, take these age-demographics quite seriously when they plan their campaigns.
The effect of this is two-fold.
Rugby union, like most other professional team sports, is driven by its brands; in turn the success of the brand is dependent on its power amongst the audience it targets. So when the brands, or investors that associate themself to those brands (sponsors) only targets a specific age-group to get the best return on investment (ROI), chances are the association with the brand amongst those ignored will disappear or become less powerful.
Although these figures highlight the South African context of the state of the game, a bit of research on the global popularity did not paint a better picture at all.
When global travel companies list sporting events such as Roller Skating miles ahead of attending a rugby union match, I think there is a need to be concerned. Even globally respected organisations like National Geographic do not have rugby union as a must see top 10 sporting event, even in a Rugby World Cup year. A random search of 5 specialist sport holiday travel agencies does not reveal a single rugby union event in their brochures for 2012.
In his book ‘100 Sporting Events You Must See Live’ self-made millionaire and owner of Premier Global Sports, Robert Tuchman, lists the Hong Kong Sevens at around number 30 on his list with the first mention of the 15-man code (watching the All Blacks) coming in at around 50!
We could highlight possible causes for this phenomenon like the archaic management of the game and its elitist label as explained above, but the most important thing to do is to debate possible solutions to what is a very serious problem – and we have one right under our noses.
Not being a massive fan of the Sevens code, I made the prediction 12 months ago that the game of Sevens will overtake the 15-man code in its popularity globally in the next 15 to 20 years, perhaps even sooner given its recent inclusion in the Olympic Games.
What the game of Sevens has managed to do in the last 15 years is realise they need to make the total experience of the game an event, from how it is marketed right down to how it is presented to the audience present in the stadium or viewing on television worldwide. It is also not like Sevens tried to re-invent the game itself which has been played since 1883. They simply realized they needed to make it more appealing to a global market where a reliance on the top 8, or richest nations in union will get them no-where. How else could they manage to make a sports entrepreneur and media mogul’s top 100 list of sporting events to watch live about 20 spots ahead of the All Blacks?!
The IRB may quote Rugby World Cup figures to illustrate the game’s popularity worldwide, but this paints the wrong picture.
If Rugby Union had to be compared to other professional sporting events not only through a viewership audience on a year-to-year basis (and not a single event like the Rugby World Cup) but also the different generation’s playing and supporting it, the game falls way short.
What is crystal clear is that if the current trend continues, the game of union will simply run out of supporters in the next 20 to 25 years. And while the current younger generation will obviously take the place of the biggest supporters (age) group of the game currently, the lack of brand association and brand power in its current state suggests that the association with the sport will decline or even become non-existent.
There is no reason the 15-man code cannot re-invent itself as the Sevens game did without changing the fundamentals of the game itself (like the laws), but it will require rugby’s elitist to start sharing the power and wealth of the game.
This article first appeared on the RugbyJourney.com – check their site for more awesome opinion pieces.