Do you know what Hurling is?
It’s a game only played in the 26 counties of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with a combined population of 6.5 million people. The game itself involves 15 players, 14 of whom are armed with a hurley, used to hit the sliotar. Players aim to either score goals, where the ball is hit past a goalkeeper guarding a soccer-style net ; or for a point, where the ball is hit over a rugby-style goal post. A goal counts 3 points.
The reason I am introducing you to this odd sport is to analyse a statement by SARU CEO Jurie Roux in an interview with Sport24’s Rob Houwing a fortnight ago in which Roux claimed that “the weak rand is killing SA rugby.” While there is obvious merit in Roux’s alarmist claim – I will try to paint instead a picture of an organisation who does not exploit one of its main revenue streams out of pure incompetence or laziness or a mixture of both.
This weekend saw county Clare contest the 2013 All Ireland hurling final against county Cork. Both counties are situated roughly 240 kilometers away from Dublin where the final was hosted at the prestigious Croke Park. Clare is a small county on the western coast of Ireland with a population of just over 117000 people. Cork is the republic of Ireland’s second city, even if country Cork still boast a population of 560000 people, which is a good bit less than Bloemfontein. The hurling final however,at around €100 per ticket, saw just under 83000 people attend. What is even more remarkable is that this final is a replay of a match that 3 weeks prior ended in a draw. The first ‘final’ attracted more than 80 000 spectators. A week later county Dublin played in the All Ireland Gaelic football final against minnows county Mayo – and that game again attracted 86000 spectators!
The point I am trying to make is an obvious one. Ireland is a much smaller country than South Africa. The republic only escaped the recession 3 months ago and still has an economy in deep distress. Gaelic sports is a true minority game in the world of sport, yet the GAA, who organizes and controls Gaelic sport leaves no stone unturned in marketing these games on every platform imaginable.
Now if you consider that the GAA would have earned more money from gate receipts over the past 3 weeks hosting the All Ireland finals in Croke Park than SARU earned hosting the Lions series in 2009, then you can appreciate that there is a problem somewhere. Rugby is an international sport with major brand sponsorship’s and supposedly a ‘religion’ to a large part of the South African population, yet our premier domestic competition (The Currie Cup) so far saw average gate attendances of only 16000 while the Super Rugby competition featuring the top rugby players in the world game attracted around 35000 spectators per game in South Africa at roughly €10 per ticket.
It appears we only get volume into stadiums for games that are cheap, and if you remove Newlands Stadium from these figures the average attendance at the remaining stadiums sees a significant drop. Yet SARU is an organisation in the green because its expenses are covered by massive television broadcasting deals signed once every 6 or so years. The suits get their salaries paid and the books balance and everything is hunky dory, yet no union can afford Jacques Fouries salary because they don’t generate enough income out side of their broadcasting deals.
What about merchandising – that giant cash cow that keeps European soccer teams in the green? Our unions cannot charge more than R80,00 a ticket for a game featuring on average 8 international rugby stars during Super Rugby, yet are happy for their international sports apparel brand sponsor to charge fans R800,00 for a replica jersey? No wonder so many fans buy substandard products from vendors on the street, yet the money paid to the street vendor does not reach the coffers of the local union and therefore cannot support player retention. The fan however makes an easy decision: I want the jersey because I love my team but I cannot afford R800,00 for it so I will buy the R200,00 version from a vendor at a traffic light instead.
To get back to hurling and the GAA, much like the rugby union teams who participate in the RaboDirect Pro 12 or Heineken competitions in Europe, you can purchase a wide variety of replica gear at roughly half the price you would pay for the match ticket. The live experience is prime you see, and people will sacrifice to get to see maybe one or two games a year and they will cherish those match tickets. In South African rugby its the other way around. We don’t care for the live experience anymore. Only Springbok and Western Province rugby get their fans out of bed – and in the case of the Springboks only the big games now fill stadiums. Long gone are the days when you can fill a stadium when the Boks play Argentina – even in the metropolis that is Johannesburg an hour after your national soccer team contested a match at the same ground!
I would love to see Jurie Roux address these issues before he sits back and blames our woes on the weak rand and explains how we are in fact helpless in this situation. I want to see rugby be something that people support with passion- a game where the mere purchase of a match ticket is an event in itself. No Mr Roux – Super rugby with its hundreds of meaningless games played at 11 in the morning (when real rugby fans are supporting their schools teams) and a diluted Currie Cup, not to mention some mediocre Springbok performances overt he past 4 years are what kills SA Rugby. A totally unfocused approached to merchandising and other ‘value-adds’ kills SA rugby. A political agenda in rugby that is not transparent to fans is what is killing SA rugby.
I only managed to see 5 minutes of Saturdays match in a Dublin pub run by Australians that cater mainly for rugby union. A separate area dedicated to the Springbok match was set up and filled to the brim with expats from both nations. However on the other much smaller TV screen county Clare was about to be hauled in by a valiant 3-goal rally from Cork in a game we neither knew nor understood- yet the passion and atmosphere at Croke Park appeared worlds apart from the ‘product’ dished up at Newlands, and across the room you could see eyes wonder at regular intervals to this strange ‘other’ sport that somehow just looked ‘alive’.
In conclusion I ask you this: If at R80,00 a ticket we can get 10 000 more spectators per game at every venue in South Africa, how many players can we retain with the extra 6 or so million extra rands earned per union a season? And out of that 10 000 if just 500 buy affordable official merchandise? Do anyone at SARU, who all receive pay-checks at the end of every month really care about these figures or are they too busy blaming external factors such as a weak rand?